By Erwin Seba
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton called on Thursday for changes to election laws to make it easier to vote, and condemned several Republican rivals for backing efforts that she said keep poor, young and minority voters from the polls.
At a speech at historically black Texas Southern University, Clinton said restrictive voting laws passed by Republican-led state legislatures in recent years are part of a "sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people and young people."
Clinton called for every U.S. citizen to be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18, unless they actively choose to opt out, and backed a new standard of at least 20 days of early in-person voting in every state, including weekend and evening voting.
"We should be clearing the way for more people to vote, not putting up every roadblock anyone can imagine," said Clinton, who is the 2016 Democratic front-runner.
Clinton's remarks put her on the front lines of a longstanding partisan battle over recent voting restrictions approved by Republican-led legislatures in Texas, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina and other states.
Democrats, who are pursuing legal challenges to some of the laws, say restrictions such as strict photo identification requirements for voters and cutbacks in early voting make the process harder for lower-income and minority voters and are designed to suppress turnout among those Democratic constituencies.
Republicans have defended the laws as necessary to combat voter fraud. They were quick to condemn Clinton's comments as "misleading and divisive."
"In reality, the vast majority of Americans – including minority voters – support commonsense measures to prevent voter fraud," the spokesman for the Republican National Committee, Orlando Watson, said. "Clinton's shameless attacks ignore the fact her Democrat-led home state of New York does not allow early voting while dozens of Republican-led states do."
Clinton took aim by name at four current or potential 2016 Republican presidential contenders - Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
She criticized Perry for backing a package of restrictive laws in Texas, Walker for cutbacks in early voting, Christie for vetoing legislation to extend early voting and Bush for allowing Florida officials to purge voter rolls before the 2000 election.
Clinton also urged Congress to pass laws to repair the "damage" to the 1965 Voting Rights Act from a 2013 Supreme Court decision. The court invalidated a section of the act requiring areas with a history of racial discrimination, mainly in the South, to get federal approval for changes to voting laws.
"Today, Republicans are systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting. What part of democracy are they afraid of?" she asked.
(Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Leslie Adler)