Clin­ton ac­cuses GOP of tar­get­ing vot­ers’ rights

She sug­gests an over­haul that would au­to­mat­i­cally reg­is­ter cit­i­zens at age 18.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Evan Halper evan.halper@la­times.com

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.

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