In a major speech on voting rights Thursday, Hillary Clinton laid out a far-reaching vision for expanding access to the ballot box, and denounced Republican efforts to make voting harder.
Speaking at Texas Southern University in Houston, Clinton called for every American to be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18 unless they choose not to be. She backed a nationwide standard of at least 20 days of early voting. She urged Congress to pass legislation strengthening the Voting Rights Act, which was gravely weakened by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling. And she slammed restrictive voting laws imposed by the GOP in Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin, which she said affect minorities and students in particular.
"We have a responsibility to say clearly and directly what's really going on in our country," Clinton said, "because what is happening is a sweeping effort to dis-empower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people, and young people from one end of our country to the other."
"We should be clearing the way for more people to vote, not putting up every road-block anyone can imagine," Clinton added.
From a political perspective, forthrightly calling out Republican voting restrictions and advocating greater access to voting will likely help Clinton shore up key sections of her base -- minorities and students in particular. And it could put the GOP on notice that further efforts to make voting harder may backfire by giving Democrats a tool to motivate their supporters.
Clinton, the prohibitive front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, called out by name several of her potential 2016 rivals -- Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie -- for supporting restrictive voting policies. She said Republicans should stop "fearmongering about a phantom epidemic of voter fraud."
“Finally, a presidential candidate is acknowledging the rampant voting discrimination that has surged since the Voting Rights Act was gutted in 2013," Wade Henderson, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told msnbc. "Voting is a cornerstone of our nation’s commitment to democracy, and Clinton’s acknowledgment of its importance is noteworthy."
Clinton said relatively little about the most hot-button voting issue, voter ID -- an approach that also appears politically savvy. Despite evidence that as many as 10% of eligible voters, disproportionately minorities, don't have the ID required by strict versions of the law, polls show voter ID is generally popular.
Instead, Clinton sought to move the voting rights debate for 2016 toward more advantageous terrain for Democrats and voting rights supporters: expanding access to voting and voter registration, to make it easier to cast a ballot and bring more Americans into the process.
Noting that between one quarter and one third of all Americans aren't registered to vote, Clinton called for an across-the-board modernization of the registration process. The centerpiece: universal automatic voter registration, in which every citizen is automatically registered when they turn 18 unless they affirmatively choose not to be, effectively changing the system's default status from non-registered to registered. Oregon passed such a law earlier this year, and several other states, including California, are considering the idea.
“I think this would have a profound impact on our elections and our democracy,” Clinton said.
Clinton also said registration should be updated automatically when a voter moves, and called for making voter rolls more accurate secure. And she said Republican efforts to restrict voter registration, seen in Texas, Florida, and other states, disproportionately affect marginalized communities, and students.
Around 50 million eligible voters aren't registered, according to a recent study by the Center for Popular Democracy, based on Census Bureau data. That's three times as many as the number who are registered but stay home.
Clinton said the nationwide early voting standard of at least 20 days should also include evening and weekend voting, to accommodate those with work or family commitments.
“If families coming out of church on Sunday are inspired to go vote, they should be free to do just that,” Clinton said, in a reference to the Souls to the Polls drives that are popular in Africa-American communities, in which people vote en masse after church.
Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina — all Republican-controlled states — have cut their early voting periods in recent years, with the latter two states also eliminating same-day voter registration. And a third of all states offer no early voting at all. Democratic efforts to create or expand early voting have been killed, or allowed to languish in committee, by Republicans in at least 15 states, eight of them in the south, according to a tally compiled by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
In addition, Clinton called for Congress to fully implement the recommendations of a bipartisan presidential panel on voting released last year, which included online voter registration and establishing the principle that voters shouldn't wait more than 30 minutes. And she suggested that laws barring ex-felons from voting should be liberalized, adding her voice to a growing push against felon disenfranchisement laws.
And Clinton lamented the Supreme Court's weakening of the Voting Rights Act.
"We need a Supreme Court that cares more about protecting the right to vote of a person to vote than the right of a corporation to buy an election," she said.
Asked by msnbc on a call with reporters whether it was realistic to propose legislation, given the record of the Republican-controlled Congress, a senior official with the Clinton campaign pointed to "encouraging signs” in the states, arguing that such changes could be implemented at the state level with federal support.
On voter ID, Clinton's criticism of Texas’s law was centered on a provision that allows concealed gun permits but not student IDs, suggesting partisan bias. She didn't offer the kind of broader condemnation of ID laws per se often voiced by voting and civil rights groups. And in criticizing Wisconsin and North Carolina's slew of voting restrictions, she focused on cuts to early voting rather than those states' ID laws.
Hours before Clinton spoke, a de facto arm of her campaign that provides pro-Clinton information to the media sent out an email documenting the GOP 2016 hopefuls' records of supporting restrictive voting policies, which it contrasted with Clinton's expansive approach.
Clinton's speech comes less than a week after her campaign's top lawyer, Marc Elias, filed suit to challenge Wisconsin's voting restrictions. Last month, Elias filed a similar lawsuit challenging Ohio's early voting cuts.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted called the lawsuit "frivolous" in a statement to msnbc and said Elias is wasting Ohioans' tax dollars. “Hillary Clinton is calling for a national standard for early voting that is less than what Ohio currently offers," Husted said. "Given this fact, I call on her to tell her attorneys to drop her elections lawsuit against Ohio.”
The Clinton campaign has said it's not officially involved in the lawsuits but supports them.
In choosing to give the speech in Texas, Clinton was going into the belly of the beast. In addition to the ID law, which has been struck down as racially discriminatory and is currently being appealed, Texas also has the strictest voter registration rules in the country. And last week, a voting group alleged that the state is systematically failing to process registration applications, msnbc reported.
Clinton has long had a strong record on voting issues. As a volunteer for the 1972 George McGovern presidential campaign, Clinton worked to register Latino voters in Texas. And in 2005 as a senator, she introduced an expansive voting bill that would have made Election Day a national holiday and set standards for early voting.
At Texas Southern, Clinton received the Barbara Jordan Leadership Award, named for the crusading civil rights leader who was the first southern black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.