Accusing her Republican rivals of trying to scare voters away from the polls, Hillary Clinton called Thursday for automatic registration that would put every 18-year-old on the voter rolls unless they specifically requested an exemption. The b eleaguered-but-still-inevitable Democratic frontrunner, told an audience at Houston's Texas Southern University that she supports a broad expansion of voting rights—including automatic registration and a minimum 20 days of early voting in every state—and called on Congress to restore parts of the Voting Rights Act that were stricken by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Specifically calling out four likely GOP presidential hopefuls— Governors Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Chris Christie —Clinton called on Republicans to "stop fear-mongering about a phantom epidemic of voter fraud," denouncing what she characterized as a conservative effort to reduce turnout among young voters, minorities, and old people—voting blocs that, it just so happens, typically vote for the Democrats.
"All of these problems voting just didn't happen by accident," she said. "And it is just wrong—it's wrong—to try to prevent, undermine and inhibit Americans' right to vote."
Her criticism isn't exactly new. Ever since 2000, when George W. Bush may or may not have beaten out Al Gore for the presidency, Democrats have been salty about voter access. A mere 15 years later, the party is pushing back against Republican-backed election laws that they say restrict voting rights. But it's not clear that either party is fighting the right fight.
In her remarks Thursday, Clinton tried to pin poor voter participation on Republicans, saying they're "systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of Americans from voting" through laws that limit early voting, require voters to show government-issued ID at the polls, and by avoiding federal oversight of election changes. Conservatives claim they're simply defending the sanctity of the democratic process from the pernicious threat of voter fraud. This plays well with their base because conservatives are very into defending the sanctity of things.
In the meantime, neither party is addressing the grimmer, greater truth: Most Americans who can vote don't vote.
In the November 2014 midterm elections, the US saw the worst voter turnout since 1942. Nationally, just 36 percent of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot; in the three most populous states—California, Texas, and New York—that proportion was less than a third. All but seven states turned out less than half of their eligible voters, and no state broke 60 percent.
From a strictly numerical standpoint, voter fraud—the scourge that Republicans claim they are addressing with new election laws—isn't a problem. But on the other hand, neither is voter suppression.
Statistically, it's pretty safe to infer that conservative efforts to push through voting restrictions have been born, at least in part, of motivations other than a need to stem the lawless, willy-nilly exercise of the Fifteenth Amendment. Take Texas, for example: Many of the recent laws pushed through by GOP state lawmakers only target voter impersonation, an exceedingly rare type of already rare election crimes—but Republican elections officials in the enormous and extra-vigilant state found only two instances of voter impersonation to prosecute between 2002 and 2012—and they were really, really looking for it.
While full access to the vote is obviously important, though, the argument, made by Clinton and other Democrats, that new voting laws have systematically stripped voters of their democratic rights might be founded on similarly thin evidence.
Let's go back to Texas. In 2011, Democrats warned that the state's voter ID law would disenfranchise up to 600,000 lawful voters. But when the law finally took effect, after much courthouse wrangling, turnout rates were comparable to pre-ID elections. In fact, turnout in 2014 was actually higher in some heavily Hispanic counties where voter suppression was expected to be worst. More voters had to use provisional ballots, either because their registered names were different from the ones on their IDs or because they went to the wrong polling location, but those cases amounted to fewer than 400 ballots out of the 284,000 in-person votes cast, and most ended up being counted successfully.
Pundits and demographers have long claimed that deep red Texas—a mostly urban, majority non-white state—is on the verge of turning blue, or at least purple. The reason this hasn't happened yet, though, is low voter turnout: Texas clatters around at the bottom of the state rankings in turnout, placing 48th or 49th in most election years,
The lack of Democratic voter turnout in Texas is not for lack of trying. In January 2013, former Obama campaign strategists launched Battleground Texas, a progressive political action group whose goal was to turn Texas into a swing state. Battleground Texas had money, ambition, and experience, but threw its weight behind gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, a one-time star on the left who got trounced in November 2014. The failure suggests voter disengagement won't be overcome by organization alone.
In the end, it's probably not that voters aren't aware of elections, or have been turned away from the polls so often that they've given up on the process. Maybe they just don't like the choices they've been offered. Take Clinton who, while still leading the weak Democratic field, is polling 15 points lower than she did at this time in 2008, when she was running in the Democratic primary against Barack Obama.
Among younger voters the numbers are even more troubling for Democrats. The Pew Research Center recently found that Clinton's support declines among Democratic-leaning millennial voters, with just 65 percent in favor of her candidacy, compared to 79 percent of older Democrats. A poll of 18-29-year-olds released by Harvard's Institute of Politics this spring found that while voters in this age group are more likely to identify as Democrats than as Republicans—55 percent to 40 percent—just 21 percent said they considered themselves politically engaged.
This is all bad news for a party whose path to victory usually relies on a coalition of younger and ethnically diverse voters. To make matters worse, Democrats are expected to nominate a member of the same entrenched dynasties that have turned two thirds of the country away from politics altogether. So while Clinton may want to blame Republican policies for the Democrats' failure to thrive, she might look critically instead at the party poised to hand her the nomination.
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