Former President Barack Obama highlighted Puerto Rico’s lack of voting rights in a eulogy delivered at the funeral of Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) on Thursday.
Lewis, often called “the conscience of Congress,” represented Atlanta, Georgia in Congress since 1987 after establishing himself as a national leader for civil rights. He died on July 17 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 80.
Obama spoke about Lewis’s history of service, but then said that “there are those in power who are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting.”
Acknowledging that some listeners would question his choice to make political points, Obama said that Lewis’s own choices emboldened him to call for action. “If politicians want to honor John,” he said, “there’s a better way than a statement calling him a hero. You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for. And by the way, naming the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that is a fine tribute. But John wouldn’t want us to stop there.”
Describing the Voting Rights Act as “one of the crowning achievements of our democracy,” Obama also said, “It’s why John crossed that bridge, why he spilled that blood. And by the way, it was the result of Democrat and Republican efforts. President Bush, who spoke here earlier, and his father, signed its renewal when they were in office. President Clinton didn’t have to because it was the law when he arrived. So instead, he made a law to make it easier for people to register to vote.”
Obama detailed some of the actions that weakened the Voting Rights Act, and spoke also about the number of Americans who take the right to vote for granted, and the importance of voting. “Too many of our citizens believe their vote won’t make a difference, or they buy into the cynicism that, by the way, is the central strategy of voter suppression, to make you discouraged, to stop believing in your own power,” said Obama. “So, we’re also going to have to remember what John said. If you don’t do everything you can do to change things, then they will remain the same.”
Obama did not forget Puerto Rico.
“Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better by making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates who’ve earned their second chance. By adding polling places and expanding early voting and making Election Day a national holiday, so if you are somebody who’s working in a factory or you’re a single mom, who’s got to go to her job and doesn’t get time off, you can still cast your ballot. By guaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, D.C., and in Puerto Rico. They’re Americans.”
Calling for full enfranchisement for the territory of Puerto Rico in the same breath as his call for full voting rights in the States, Obama reinforced his support for equal representation for Puerto Ricans residing in the U.S. territory. President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico made the following recommendation:
Recommendation # 1: The Task Force recommends that all relevant parties—the President, Congress, and the leadership and people of Puerto Rico—work to ensure that Puerto Ricans are able to express their will about status options and have that will acted upon by the end of 2012 or soon thereafter.
In 2014, seeing that this outcome had not taken place, the Obama administration set aside $2.5 million to fund a new plebiscite including voter education on the options. The Department of Justice has just refused to invest that funding in the upcoming 2020 plebiscite, citing problems with the ballot, which is the same structure of ballots used for local votes in Hawaii and Alaska’s pursuits for statehood.
Obama called for future action. “If we want our children to grow up in a democracy, not just with elections, but a true democracy, a representative democracy, and a big-hearted tolerant, vibrant, inclusive America of perpetual self-creation,” he said, “then we’re going to have to be more like John.”