On Thursday, Hillary Clinton received the Barbara Jordan Public-Private Leadership Award at the historically black Texas Southern University in Houston. A former member of the House of Representatives, Jordan was the first black congresswoman elected from the South, the first black American to represent Texas in Congress, and a fierce advocate for the Voting Rights Act, fighting to extend its protections to minorities.
It’s on that latter point that Clinton, speaking in acceptance of the award, made her remarks. “Forty years after Barbara Jordan fought to extend the Voting Rights Act, its heart has been ripped out,” she said. “What is happening is a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people, and young people from one end of our country to the other.” She continued: “Since the Supreme Court eviscerated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, many of the states that previously faced special scrutiny because of a history of racial discrimination have proposed and passed new laws that make it harder than ever to vote.”
She’s not exaggerating. Republicans pitch their voter identification and “ballot integrity” laws as efforts to protect the voting process. But even a quick glance shows them as transparent efforts at voter suppression.
In North Carolina, for example, Republicans drastically reduced early voting, ended same-day voter registration, repealed a mandate for high school voter-registration drives, eliminated flexibility in early-voting hours, reinstated felon disenfranchisement measures, authorized vigilante poll observers, and imposed an ID requirement that excluded municipal government IDs, photo IDs issued by public assistant agencies, and student IDs. At the time, the state itself estimated that as many as 318,000 voters would lack identification to vote on Election Day. Despite this, Gov. Pat McCrory described the measures as “common sense” designed to “ensure the integrity” of the ballot box and “provide greater equality in access to voting to North Carolinians,” which would be accurate, if words were meaningless.
Likewise, in Wisconsin, Republicans passed a strict voter-identification law that also slashed early-voting hours, a twin move that would—noted one federal judge—“deter or prevent a substantial number of the 300,000–plus registered voters who lack ID from voting” and would disproportionately harm minority voters. And beyond laws, there are the shenanigans of local officials who implement voting rules with little oversight. “Many of the worst offenses against the right to vote happen below the radar,” explained Clinton, “like when authorities shift poll locations and election dates, or scrap language assistance for non-English speaking citizens. Without the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, no one outside the local community is likely to ever hear about these abuses, let alone have a chance to challenge them and end them.”
Overall, 21 states have put voting restrictions in place since the 2010 elections, including swing states like Florida, New Hampshire, and Virginia. Next year, in 14 of these states, those laws will be in effect for the first time. And tellingly, the prevalence of those laws has a lot to do with the demographics of the state. “Of the 11 states with the highest African American turnout in 2008, 7 have new restrictions,” notes the Brennan Center for Justice. “Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010, 9 passed laws making it harder to vote.”
Clinton didn’t shy away from that connection. “It is a cruel irony, but no coincidence, that millennials—the most diverse, tolerant, and inclusive generation in American history—are now facing exclusion,” she said, in reference to restrictions on student voting. Likewise, she explained, “Minority voters are more likely than white voters to wait in long lines at polling places. They are also far more likely to vote in polling places with insufficient numbers of voting machines … This kind of disparity doesn’t happen by accident.”
To solve these problems and make an affirmative push for voting equality, Clinton wants to take two ambitious steps. First, she wants universal and automatic voter registration, with an opt-out for voters who don’t want to register. This wouldn’t be difficult. As the Center for Voting and Democracy notes, a combination of federal standards and broader registration rules would quickly increase total registration. More importantly, it solves the problems we saw in the 2014 election cycle, when mass registration efforts ran into partisan opposition from state officials. Facilitated by federal, state, and local officials, universal registration would go miles toward improving civic engagement.
For the second step—actual voting—Clinton wants new federal guidelines for early voting, and national opportunities for weekend and evening voting. The goal, again, is to make it as easy as possible to join the process and participate. Indeed, by just announcing her support for these measures, Clinton helps reformers in states where change is possible.
These are good ideas on the merits. They’re also great politics. Voting is one of the few issues where the partisan and ideological differences are easy to understand. Democrats want to expand access to the ballot, Republicans want to restrict it. It’s an excellent issue for activism—look at the high number of voters who went to the polls in 2012 in defiance of voter-suppression measures—and a sturdy cudgel against your political opponents, who will have to take a stand and risk a mistake or worse.
To that point, Clinton attacked Gov. Scott Walker, Rick Perry, and Jeb Bush by name—blasting each for their voter ID laws—and asked Republicans to “stop fear-mongering” about a “phantom epidemic of election fraud.” Condemning Republican voter suppression, Clinton said, “It is just wrong … to try to prevent, undermine, and inhibit Americans’ right to vote. And at a time when so many Americans have lost trust in our political system, it’s the opposite of what we should be doing in our country.”
Invested in voter suppression—Walker touts his ID bill to GOP audiences—Republicans will push back, attacking Clinton’s plan for its size and wide federal role. But it’s clear she’s ready for the fight. With this issue, she’s in her element: Calm, comfortable with details, and eager to argue her vision. This, in a sense, was the real beginning of the Clinton campaign, and it was effective.