Is Hillary Clinton Dooming Real Election Reform?

If the Democratic front-runner cares so much about voting rights, then she shouldn’t be politicizing them.

Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with parents and child care workers at the Center for New Horizons on May 20, 2015, in Chicago.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton spoke at Texas Southern University last week, where she put forward some good and provocative ideas for improving our elections. She wants Congress to fix the part of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013. She wants to expand early voting periods nationally to at least 20 days. And most provocatively, she advocates automatic universal voter registration across the country, including a program to automatically register high school students to vote before their 18th birthdays.

But the partisan way she’s framed the issue—by blaming Republicans for all the voting problems—makes it less likely these changes will actually be implemented should she be elected president. Instead, she’s offering red meat to her supporters while alienating the allies she would need to get any reforms enacted.

On substance, Clinton’s ideas are excellent. Since the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision, jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting, such as Texas and North Carolina, have passed or put into place new restrictive voting rules. Before Shelby County, these laws could not go into effect unless these jurisdictions proved that the changes would not make minority voters worse off—something Texas could not prove and North Carolina likely would have failed to prove had it been put to the test. Early voting, especially in-person voting, can be done in ways that both make voting more convenient and take the pressure off the polls on Election Day, assuring that more people who want to vote will be able to do so. I have been pushing for automatic voter registration for a long time—I advocated for it in a 2008 Slate piece—as a way of both easing the greatest barrier to voting and rationalizing and reducing fraud in our election system by having national, single voter-registration identification numbers that people would keep their entire voting lives.

Not only is Clinton proposing good policies but, as Jamelle Bouie argues, it is also good politics for her to talk about these issues before enthusiastic Democratic crowds. The New York Times revealed this weekend that Clinton’s political strategy is going to focus less on convincing undecided voters and more on getting voters who support her to get to the polls and vote. James Carville, a key advisor to Bill Clinton in his 1992 race for president, told the Times: “The highest-premium voter in ’92 was a voter who would vote for one party some and for another party some. … Now the highest-premium voter is somebody with a high probability to vote for you and low probability to turn out. That’s the golden list. And that’s a humongous change in basic strategic doctrine.”

However, talking about election reform so provocatively may also doom the chances for meaningful election reform. Clinton used her speech not only to advance these ideas but to bash Republican opponents, including Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, both of whom passed restrictive voting laws in the last few years. “What part of democracy are they afraid of?” she asked.

Sure, partisan Democrats lapped it up, but Clinton is politicizing election reform in the process. While Republicans are responsible for most of the recent efforts to suppress voting, Clinton is accusing all Republicans of acting in bad faith. That message will likely alienate moderate Republicans who could be her natural partners for reforms in the future.

Slate readers may welcome Clinton calling out Republicans who are acting in bad faith. I understand that impulse, because I agree that Walker and Perry support restrictive voter ID laws not because they believe voter fraud is a real problem but to help get Republicans elected through suppressing the Democratic vote.

However, there are moderate Republicans who are willing to work with Democrats on election reform when the issue is less politicized. Consider the work of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, headed by President Obama’s former head lawyer Robert Bauer and former Mitt Romney campaign head lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg. They proposed common-sense election reforms to improve our election processes—work that is being carried forward on a bipartisan basis by groups like the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Pew Charitable Trust’s election reform project. Doug Chapin’s Election Academy brings professionalism, not partisanship, to the field. And with a newly functioning Election Assistance Commission, moderate technocratic steps to improve our elections are possible.

Or consider how Republicans and Democrats have come together in many places to support online voter registration, a great move to aid the convenience of voters who are new or who have moved since last voting. The Florida legislature passed this reform with great bipartisan majorities, and Gov. Rick Scott reluctantly signed the law, even after his handpicked Secretary of State Ken Detzner fought against its passage. The Republican Ohio Secretary of State, Jon Husted, is pushing hard for online voter registration, despite opposition from Republicans state legislators.

Movement to get meaningful and good election reform requires that the issue be depoliticized when possible. Yet the New York Times reports that Clinton is focusing on the voting wars as part of her political strategy: “By emphatically staking out liberal positions on gay rightsimmigrationcriminal justice, voting rights and pay equity for women, Mrs. Clinton is showing core Democratic constituencies that she intends to give them a reason to support her.”

The issue became even more politicized when the New York Times revealed this weekend that liberal billionaire George Soros, a favorite boogeyman of the right, is bankrolling the effort to litigate challenges to restrictive election rules in North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Hillary Clinton’s lawyer, Marc Elias, is bringing these cases not on behalf of the campaign but apparently with the campaign’s blessing. The lawsuits are especially infuriating to Republicans because the Ohio one attacks the state’s cutback in early voting periods to 27 days. Not only is that still more than the number of days Clinton supports but it is 27 more days than the zero days of early voting offered in Clinton’s home state of New York.

On Twitter I complained that a campaign is the last place to have a rational conversation about our dysfunctional election system. Clinton’s lawyer Elias responded: “Wrong—it’s the best place to expose voter suppression for what it is. Worst place is in academic papers no one reads.”

That may be a great position to take in the campaign. But it’s not the kind of talk that is going to get Republicans in Congress to go along with a Voting Rights Act fix proposed by a President Hillary Clinton or any other meaningful reforms that will require bipartisan support. Clinton would do the country a service by leaving election reform to sober policy discussions and not campaign rallies.