Over the last year or so, the conversation on voting in America has been shifting. Now, Hillary Clinton’s major speech in Texas Thursday has massively accelerated that movement.
By laying out a sweeping and positive vision for voting, Clinton smartly turned the debate away from the restrictive Republican-backed laws like voter ID that have made headlines in recent years, and toward the kind of expansive ideas that could usher millions of new voters into the process—chief among them, automatically registering everyone when they turn 18. That will lend crucial momentum to state-level proposals to increase access, which already have been gathering steam of late. And politically, it will force Republicans to explain why they oppose common-sense efforts to make voting easier.
Democrats are already recognizing that they can take advantage of the broadening conversation to put Republicans in a deeply uncomfortable spot.
Responded Marc Elias, the Clinton campaign’s top lawyer:
Conservatives are noticing the shift, too. “[V]oter ID is yesterday’s battleground,” wrote Christian Adams, a former Justice Department lawyer and a leading supporter of restrictive voting policies, with a hint of trepidation. ”Sure, there are still court cases and bills, but the Left has moved on to bigger and better things.”
But finally playing offense on voting isn’t just smart politics—though it certainly is that. It also has the potential to transform the electorate.
The hot-button controversies over strict Republican voting laws have obscured a crucial reality: Far more Americans are kept from voting by what might be called softer barriers that have been in place so long that they generate less attention: an antiquated registration system that, among other problems, requires voters to re-register each time they move, leaving around 50 million people unregistered; poorly maintained voter rolls that cause confusion on Election Day; hours-long lines that drive some would-be voters away in frustration and are worst in minority neighborhoods.
President Obama’s bipartisan panel on voting, convened in response to the massive lines in Florida in 2012, helped put these issues—as well as the importance of early voting to reduce lines on Election Day—on the agenda. And the record low turnout in last fall’s midterms has helped focus the conversation on how to get more voters to the polls. President Obama even mused recently about mandatory voting, which he called "transformative."
Since the start of the year, 464 bills to enhance voting access—many of them modernizing the registration system—have been introduced in state legislatures, according to a tally by the Brennan Center for Democracy. Oregon recently passed a law to establish automatic voter registration, which could create as many as 800,000 new registered voters in that state alone. And other states, including California, are considering following suit.
Clinton’s aggressive plan will push those efforts forward. Expect to see more universal voter registration measures introduced in states across the country.
Of course, polls show ID is popular, so it’s no surprise that Clinton and her allies would want to focus elsewhere. And to be sure, she offered a full-throated condemnation of the wave of voting restrictions the GOP has imposed in state after state. But in calling out four of her potential 2016 rivals by name, it was noticeable that she focused not on voter ID but more broadly on their support for policies that restrict, rather than expand, the electorate, and that target particular groups.
Clinton said Rick Perry had “signed a law that a federal court said was actually written with the purpose of discriminating against minority voters,” without noting that it was Texas’s strict ID law. And she slammed Scott Walker for cutting back early voting and signing “legislation that would make it harder for college students to vote,”—again without noting that she was referring to voter ID.
In response, Perry sought to turn the focus back to the more familiar terrain of voter ID. “I think it makes sense to have a photo ID to be able to vote,” the former Texas governor said on Fox News Friday. “When I got on the airline to come up here yesterday, I had to show my photo ID.”
And Walker fell back on an oft-used GOP talking point on the issue, asking why Clinton doesn’t support policies “to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” and calling her “far outside the mainstream.” (Asked which expansive voting policies Clinton doesn’t support, a spokeswoman for Walker’s PAC, Our American Revival, didn’t respond.)
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, answering Clinton’s criticism of his state’s early voting cuts, noted that New York, the state Clinton represented in the Senate, doesn’t offer any early voting at all, and accused her of “demagoguery.”
But those responses could be hard to sustain once more states move forward with expansive legislation and the conversation gets more specific. Ultimately, Republicans will need to explain why they don’t favor policies to bring more people into the political process. And answering honestly might not be an option.