WASHINGTON With the help of former President Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party launched a national drive on Thursday to expand voting opportunities and fight back against what it calls restrictive voting laws.
The program will establish permanent procedures and staff in each state to help register and educate voters, and work with local officials to expand access to the polls in the November midterm elections and beyond.
Voting laws have been the subject of bitter partisan fights since 2011, when a wave of Republican-sponsored state laws began to impose stricter identification requirements on voters or restrict access, including by cutting back on early voting sites and hours.
Republican supporters say the laws, many of which have been blocked by the courts, are needed to prevent fraud. Democrats say they are designed to limit the ballots of minorities and low-income voters who tend to support Democrats.
"Today, there is no greater assault on our core values than the rampant efforts to restrict the right to vote," Clinton said in a video released by the party.
"It's not enough anymore just to be against these new voting restrictions," he said. "To form that more perfect union, we have to expand rights, not take them away."
Democratic National Committee officials said the program, announced at the start of their winter meeting, would vary by state depending on state laws and the local political climate. It will provide a network of voter advocates and legal help to protect voting access.
They declined to put a price tag on the effort, which comes as Democrats face a stiff challenge in November to hold their majority in the Senate and are considered long shots to regain control of the House of Representatives.
Voter turnout in midterm elections is smaller, and usually whiter and older, than during presidential years, with more of the Democratic base of minority and young voters staying home. President Barack Obama warned of the trend last week, saying Democratic voters did not find midterms "sexy" enough.
"When more people are involved it's good for democracy - and yeah, it's good for Democrats," said Mo Elleithee, communications director for the DNC.
Republican National Committee officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Democratic program.
(Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Andrew Hay)