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Dems look to capitalize on GOP voter suppression

The battle over ballot access could play a major role in the fight to control Congress this fall.
A woman casts her vote at a polling station on Nov. 6, 2012 in Sugar Creek, Wis.
A woman casts her vote at a polling station on Nov. 6, 2012 in Sugar Creek, Wis.

Responding to a new round of Republican-backed voting restrictions, Democrats are looking not just to push back, but to use the voting issue to go on offense.

The goal for the party is to use GOP voter suppression to advance the message — essentially accurate — that the two parties have adopted starkly contrasting approaches to voting issues. The new, more assertive posture from Democrats reflects a growing recognition that the battle over ballot access could play a major role in the fight to control Congress this fall.

“This is an attempt by the Republican party to shrink the electorate because they know that when the electorate is large they lose, when the electorate is smaller, they win,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee told reporters on a conference call Monday afternoon. “It is crass, it is purely political, it is undemocratic.”

Elleithee was speaking at a time when the salience of voting rights issues for the partisan battle for control of Congress, the White House, and state government is at a high point — as the appearance of a front-page Sunday New York Times story on the issue suggested.

In recent months, the GOP has cut early voting and ended same-day registration in Ohio, as well as cutting weekend voting in Wisconsin. It has also moved forward with citizenship requirements for voter registration in Kansas, Arizona, and Alabama. And Republican-controlled Texas, North Carolina, and Wisconsin are fighting tooth and nail to impose strict voter ID laws. All those restrictions are likely to reduce turnout among Democratic-leaning groups: primarily minorities, students, and the poor.

Now, Democrats are shifting their response into high gear. Last month, President Bill Clinton kicked off the party’s Voter Expansion Project, which will register new voters and advocate for laws that expand, rather than restrict, the right to vote. Nebraska, which is controlled mostly by Republicans, enacted one such law Monday, with a measure that would allow voters to register online.

Aside from it’s on-the-ground impact, the Democratic effort allows the party to contrast its approach to voting issues to the one favored by Republicans — a talking point Democrats are increasingly using.

“It’s that Crossroads Moment,” Pratt Wiley, who leads the project, said on the call. “There’s a clear path to easy, accessible voting that will increase turnout on one side. And there’s a path that we know will make voting harder on the other side.”

There’s evidence that the first recent wave of Republican voting restrictions, enacted in 2011 and 2012, backfired by leadng to motivate African-Americans to turn out at a higher rate than whites in the 2012 election for the first time ever. Democrats, who lately have struggled to turn out their core supporters in midterm elections, may be hoping to use the voting issue in the same way this time around . 

The DNC effort is just one piece of the party’s response. A group of former top Obama campaign aides recently launched iVote with the explicit goal of electing voting-rights champions in secretary of state races in Ohio and three other states. A conservative group, SOS for SoS, launched in January, has said it plans to spend $10 million on secretary of state races in eight states.

In Ohio, where the partisan fight over voting rights is perhaps most intense, Democrats and leaders of the African-American community are working to put a “Voters Bill of Rights” on the November ballot. If approved by voters, the measure would bar voter ID laws and otherwise make it harder to restrict access to the ballot.

And in North Carolina, the Moral Monday movement is planning a “Freedom Summer” aimed at registering low-income voters and raising awareness about that state’s sweeping and restrictive voting law.