Last week, Hillary Clinton said something that really riled up Republicans, and it had nothing to do with charitable donations, the attack in Benghazi or her email server. She had the temerity to suggest the United States should have automatic voter registration so as soon as Americans turn 18, they would be registered to vote unless they opted out.
It’s not all. During her speech in Houston, Texas, she also endorsed early voting — a minimum of 20 days of it. And she chastised Republicans for continuing to make claims about a “phantom epidemic of election fraud” in order to reduce turnout at the polls, particularly by young people, the poor and minorities who are often the most easily deterred from voting.
Do the GOP candidates really want to call attention to their efforts at voter suppression on the national stage and not just in Red States with histories of racial inequality? Amazingly, it appears they do. What Clinton endorsed probably strikes most Americans as common sense — we should try to increase voter participation whenever possible, particularly by people who might otherwise be discouraged from going to the polls.
To be against such a policy requires a highly partisan view of election law because Clinton’s summary of “phantom” fraud is right on point. As experience has long demonstrated, what is so often termed “fraud” can almost always be traced to unintentional human error — voters misidentified by poll workers or a failure to adequately update registration records. What critics so often claim they want to address — a person knowingly voting or registering as someone they are not — is a rarity on par with Big Foot sightings or claims of alien contact.
Yet conservatives would have you believe Clinton was head of a crime family (and that exact terminology seems to be making the talk radio rounds these days) intent on aiding and abetting some grand criminal conspiracy to flood the voting booths with more actors and actresses than the audience at the Tony Awards. And it’s a fear often linked to illegal immigration, as if it were a high priority of the undocumented to risk deportation or a prison sentence by committing such a felony (rather than say, trying to support their families financially).
To paraphrase the former First Lady, what part of democracy are Republicans afraid of? Yet candidates like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor who surely knows better, recently told a New Hampshire audience “my sense is that she (Clinton) just wants an opportunity to commit greater acts of voter fraud around the country.”
We don’t doubt Clinton very much wanted to change the political “conversation” when she made her comments last Thursday on voter suppression at Texas Southern University, a historically black school. It has been a rough week for her poll numbers, but this is also June of 2015, and the first primary is still many months away. What she had to say on the subject of voter suppression is likely to be said, in one form or another, by every Democrat running for president.
But there’s a big difference between reaching out to your base by seeking to expand voter access for all Americans and reaching out to your base by stoking unwarranted fears of fraud with racist overtones. The former happens to be good public policy while the latter is the sort of thing the Voting Rights Act was originally passed to prevent — more than a half-century ago. And Clinton comes by her interest in promoting voter access honestly: She famously went to Texas as a young Democratic campaign worker in 1972 to register Latinos to vote.
The misrepresentations about voter fraud have grown tiresome. It’s become such a given, the real point of the GOP exercise is to discourage traditional Democratic supporters from voting that when Republicans fess up to the motivation (as the majority leader in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives did in 2012 in discussing how a voter ID law would win his state for Mitt Romney), it’s hardly even news. This is the real socioeconomic war in America, and serious contenders for president ought to join Clinton in drawing a line and saying enough is enough.