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As primaries continue, Michelle Obama urges voters to press on

Voting "is not a partisan issue,” she said. “It’s an American one, and anyone who says otherwise is trying to get you to stay quiet about the threats we face.”

At a multiracial, intergenerational summit that drew celebrities to students to policymakers, Michelle Obama delivered a pull-no-punches speech saying Americans “need a remix” and a “strategy” when it comes to voting.

“I’d love to be able to tell you that everything is as it should be… that we have nothing to be afraid of … to stand up here, clear my throat, and say, ‘The state of our democracy is strong!’” the former first lady said. “But you and I, we all know, that I can’t say that right now. It has been a hard, hard few weeks for our country.” 

Her remarks on Monday evening in Los Angeles came on the fourth and final day of the inaugural Culture of Democracy Summit, hosted by When We All Vote, a national, nonpartisan initiative that aims to register new voters and advance civic education nationwide. 

Obama founded the group in 2018 under the nonprofit Civic Nation, and now co-chairs it with several celebrity activists, including Kerry Washington, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Janelle Monae, Selena Gomez, Megan Rapinoe, Shonda Rhimes, and H.E.R.

The convening of leaders in a range of fields such as entertainment, business, sports and grassroots activism sought to explore and address the different roles stakeholders play in protecting and strengthening democracy.

In 2020, ahead of a presidential election in which 155 million voters yielded record turnout amid a pandemic, When We All Vote orchestrated a campaign nationwide that the group said helped more than 500,000 people start or complete the voter registration process.  

Now, two years later, primary elections are well underway in states across the country. 

To maintain momentum, Obama said, it’s imperative to go to the polls. “I am just trying to show you that no one has the luxury to sit out or stay at home just because you’re not feeling excited enough … because as I’ve said time and time again, if you don’t vote, other people will.” 

“Because just look at everything our democracy is facing,” she said, ticking off a list. 

“The harsh new photo ID laws, the polling places closed down, the early voting hours cut, folks being purged from the voting rolls, the House districts that look like a Jackson Pollock painting.” 

“In Florida, you might get stopped by an election police force before you can cast a vote — an election police force,” she continued. “In Texas, you can show your gun ID to vote … but not your school ID.”

From congressional hearings about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol to claims of excessive voter purging, gerrymandering and suppression, much is happening in the voting sphere. 

Since 2020, according to the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, state legislatures have introduced some 400 bills in 49 states that Republican lawmakers and supporters have termed voter integrity measures; Democrats and other critics contend they restrict access to the ballot and dispro­por­tion­ately affect voters of color.

Obama also referred to Shelby County v. Holder, a case the Supreme Court ruled on in 2013. 

Shelby stripped key provisions of landmark civil rights legislation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That law had, for decades, helped ensure equal access at the ballot box by requiring states and localities with a history of voter discrimination to obtain pre-clearance from the Department of Justice before making changes to their voting laws. 

In 2021, the court ruled on Brnovich v. DNC, which advocates say further chipped away at the law.

“I want you to see that the court cases that you ignore because they seem boring or arcane can actually have a direct impact on your day-to-day life,” Obama said. 

The Congressional Black Caucus and Democrats on Capitol Hill have pushed for passage of H.R. 4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act. Previous versions of the bill have passed the House but faltered in the Senate. 

Yet, Obama pointed to bipartisan efforts in the Senate to enact federal overhauls around gun ownership and safety as a hopeful sign of showing democracy at work, especially over the course of several years. 

“No matter what side you fall on,” she said, “it is encouraging to see leaders from both parties working hopefully to find some common ground on this issue … but these kinds of conversations get right to the core of what it means to live in a democracy.”

Overall, Obama’s message was clear: Voters must get “creative” instead of “angry or dejected” when it comes to actively engaging with democracy. 

“Because this is not a partisan issue," she said. "It’s an American one, and anyone who says otherwise is trying to get you to stay quiet about the threats we face.” 

“We are tired of the partisan bickering, tired of the cultural wars, tired of the talking heads distracting us from the one thing that we all should share, all of us, as Americans … the fundamental belief that everyone deserves a voice in our democracy and a vote in our elections.”

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