When Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton last week spoke on voting rights at the historically black Texas Southern University, she sharpened the contrast between Democratic and Republican presidential candidates on how they address the right to vote.
“We should be clearing the way for more people to vote, not putting up every roadblock anyone can imagine,” she said, referencing the growing number of Republican-sponsored initiatives at state and local levels that in various ways make it more difficult for citizens to cast a ballot.
The response from Republican candidates was typical, invoking baseless claims of widespread voter fraud to justify their restrictive policies.
Ultimately, Clinton believes these conservative reforms are part of an intentional and insidious push by the Republicans to increase their odds of winning future elections. “What is happening is a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people, and young people,” groups that tend to vote disproportionately for Democrats, she said.
In addition to her fiery attack of these conservative policies, she suggested four specific policy solutions to protect the right to vote.
First, she argued that Congress should fix the Voting Rights Act to repair the damage that was done by the 2013 Supreme Court ruling on Shelby County v. Holder. The Shelby decision effectively gutted Section 5 of the law, which stipulated that certain states or localities with histories of discrimination were required to get any changes to their election laws precleared by the federal government. Since that decision, multiple states that would have been covered under Section 5 have passed some of the strictest voting law changes in the country, many of which are widely believed to disproportionately harm minority voters.
Second, she advocated for implementing the recommendations outlined by the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration. These improvements include expanding early, absentee, and mail voting and modernizing the voter registration system.
Third, she proposed a national standard of at least 20 days of in-person early voting, including evening and weekend hours to accommodate those who cannot take time out of their work schedule to vote.
Finally, she called for universal, automatic voter registration. All eligible voters would be registered at the age of 18, with the opportunity to opt out. This would dramatically reduce the bureaucratic hoops that individuals are required to jump through just to be able to cast a ballot, and could go a long way toward increasing turnout.
Clinton also criticized several Republican presidential candidates for actions they took while serving as governors of their respective states. Rick Perry (R-Texas), for example, announced immediately after the Shelby County decision was released plans to implement a bill that a federal court had previously declared would discriminate against minority voters. The law contained provisions that seemed to clearly be aimed at curtailing the minority and student vote, such as allowing concealed-carry gun permits but not student ID cards, to function as an appropriate photo identification for voting.
Republicans, in response to Clinton’s rhetoric, continue to be completely unapologetic about their efforts to keep certain voters out of the process, relying on the same flawed arguments concerning voter fraud that we’ve been hearing for years.
Governor Chris Christie (R-N.J.), after being identified by Clinton by name for vetoing legislation that would have extended early voting, fired back. He attacked Clinton’s motives, accusing her of wanting to “commit greater acts of voter fraud around the country.”
This is the classic argument that Republicans have used for years to justify voting restrictions, yet it is completely unsubstantiated. Since 2000, only 31 credible cases of in-person voter fraud have been found out of one billion total ballots cast. But, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that voter fraud is not by any means a widespread problem, Republicans continue to propagate the myth in order to justify disenfranchising minority voters through voter ID laws, cuts to early voting, and provisions that increase the difficulty of registering to vote.
In the past, the national debate surrounding voter reform initiatives has occurred on terms dictated by Republicans. Hillary Clinton, in her aggressive championing of common sense progressive ideas, is doing an excellent job of framing the debate in the manner it should be framed.
Combating voter fraud is not the central issue. Rather, the focus should be on making the process of voting more accessible and inclusive, allowing our democracy to truly thrive.