Clinton accuses GOP of targeting voters’ rights
She suggests an overhaul that would automatically register citizens at age 18.
WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton positioned herself as a crusader for voting rights Thursday, calling for an overhaul of election laws so that every citizen would automatically be registered to vote on his or her 18th birthday.
In a speech at Texas Southern University in Houston, a historically black college, Clinton blistered Republicans, accusing them of “systemically and deliberately” seeking to disenfranchise voters throughout the nation with laws that make it harder to cast ballots.
Calling out potential Republican rivals by name, she pointed to measures embraced by Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey and former Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Jeb Bush of Florida that she said had made voting more difficult in their states.
“Republicans are systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of Americans from voting. What part of democracy are they afraid of?” Clinton said. Republicans, she added, need to “start explaining why they’re so scared of letting citizens have their say.”
Although systems similar to Clinton’s proposal are widely used in other countries, they would face formidable obstacles in the U.S., particularly in a Republican-controlled Congress. Republicans have long warned that Democraticsponsored measures to expand the voting rolls would invite fraud.
“Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric is misleading and divisive,” said Orlando Watson, a Republican National Committee spokesman. “In reality, the vast majority of Americans — including minority voters — support commonsense measures to prevent voter fraud.”
Even if Clinton’s proposal never becomes law, it serves an important political purpose for the former secretary of State and presidential candidate.
Across the country, Democrats have been pushing back against Republican-sponsored state laws that they say are aimed at restricting voters. Democrats have countered with litigation in conservative states and laws in states they control that seek to expand the voter rolls.
The effort to expand voting rights is particularly popular among minority voters, especially African Americans, a crucial part of the Democratic electoral coalition. If Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, she will need a large minority turnout to win several key swing states.
Clinton’s plan for universal voter registration is modeled after a new law in Oregon that automatically adds residents to voting rolls when they get a driver’s license, unless they opt out. A law that would implement such a system in California was approved by the state Assembly in April.
“Every citizen in every state in the union, everyone, every young man or young woman, should be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18,” unless they choose to opt out, Clinton said after receiving the Barbara Jordan Public-Private Leadership Award, named for the late civil rights leader and congresswoman.
Clinton is taking little risk politically in calling for expanded voting rights, but her spotlight on the issue is notable.
Democrats have pushed similar proposals before, but failed to muster enough support in Congress, even when they controlled both houses in 2008. Some moderates in the party joined with conservatives, warning that such a system would be vulnerable to fraud.
Since then, however, voting rights have become a rallying point for the Democratic Party. Republican victories in 2010 were followed by a wave of new voter restrictions in red states. Feelings about the issue have grown more intense after a Supreme Court decision two years ago struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that had required states with a historic pattern of restricting minor- ities from voting to get federal approval before making changes in their election laws.
Clinton ticked off new laws in some of those states that have rolled back programs to encourage voting. She suggested the Supreme Court decision made them possible and vowed to nominate justices to the court who shared her view on voting rights.
In addition to the automatic registration proposal, Clinton called for requiring every state to provide at least 20 days of early in-person voting, saying doing so would reduce long lines at the polls and allow people who have other obligations on election day to cast ballots. About of a third of the states do not offer any early voting.
“If families coming out of church on Sunday are inspired to go vote, they should be free to do just that,” Clinton said.
Voting law experts noted that universal registration would not be considered radical in most major democracies.
“It is the way most elections are run in other countries,” said Richard Hasen, a law professor at UC Irvine. “Everyone is automatically registered by the government. It is not so crazy if you are outside the United States.”
But there is little bipartisan support for such a system here, where more than a quarter of people eligible to vote are not registered. While many Democrats see expanded voting as a moral issue, practical politics are involved too: laws that make voting difficult tend to dis- proportionately affect groups that typically vote for Democrats, especially lowincome Americans.
Experts caution that the effect of changes in voting laws can be hard to gauge. New restrictions that appear targeted at suppressing minority turnout may have the opposite effect, galvanizing voters in protest.