President Barack Obama touted “mandatory voting” and criticized laws at the federal and state level that he said are “unabashedly” intended to keep people from voting – which he said have roots to the earliest days of the United States.
“We really are the only advanced democracy on earth that systematically and purposefully makes it really hard for people to vote,” Obama said Thursday when speaking at the University of Chicago School of Law. “There is no other country on earth that does that. There is a legacy to that that grows directly out of a history in which first propertied men, then white men, then white folks didn’t want women, minorities, to participate in the political process and be able to empower themselves in that fashion. That’s the history. We should be a society in which at this point we should say, yeah, that history is not so good.”
President Barack Obama takes part in a discussion on the Supreme Court and the country's judicial system at the University of Chicago Law School, in Chicago on April 7, 2016. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
The president went on to say, “That can’t be right. There is no justification for that. You can’t defend it.”
Obama returned to the the law school where he once taught constitutional law, with the purpose of promoting support for his nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to serve on the Supreme Court. But he took wide ranging questions from the law students for more than an hour.
Obama said he was speaking to Congress, future presidents, governors, state legislators, and the courts. Obama floated the idea of mandatory voting once before during remarks in Cleveland, but the White House quickly clarified the president was not making a proposal.
On Thursday, he brought up the idea of mandatory voting again.
“Maybe the single biggest change that we could make in our political process that would reduce some of the polarization, make people feel more invested and restore integrity to the system is just make sure everybody is voting,” Obama said. “Australia has got mandatory voting. If you start getting 70 or 80 percent voting rates, that’s transformative.”
Obama didn’t specify any federal or state law, but has been highly critical of state voter ID laws. Meanwhile, his administration has advocated reinstating voting rights for convicted felons.
“At this point, we should be at the point were we say, ‘You know what? We want everybody to vote.’ Because that’s the essence of our democracy,” Obama said. “But we have not just federal laws but state laws that unabashedly discourage people from voting, which is why we have some of the lowest voting rates of any advanced democracies in the world. That’s a problem.”