Hillary sets the perfect trap for GOP: Why her voting rights push is smart policy -- and great politics

The Democratic frontrunner will call for nationwide early voting standards today. What's the argument against?

By Jim Newell
Published June 4, 2015 5:07PM (EDT)
  (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
(Reuters/Rick Wilking)

Hillary Clinton is delivering a speech (doubling as an interview, apparently) this afternoon at the historically black Texas Southern University to tackle all things voting rights. She will urge Congress to pass a fix to the Supreme Court's 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act and condemn voter ID restrictions imposed by Republicans in Ohio, Wisconsin, Texas, Florida, and everywhere else where they run the show.

The speech coincides with lawsuits that her campaign's top lawyer, Marc Elias, is filing -- not technically in coordination with the Clinton campaign, but certainly in the interests of the Clinton campaign -- against Republican-backed voting restrictions in Wisconsin and Ohio.

But the most interesting part of her address is a call for a nationwide standard of 20 days of early voting prior to elections. It's not clear exactly what statute(s) she's going for here: whether she will simply "urge" each state to this itself, or whether she will call on Congress to pass some sort of harmonization. Obviously there's little hope that Republicans will take her up on this call on either the state or federal level. But it would at least position the spotlight back on the GOP's relentless efforts to curtail early voting for the specific purpose that early voting, on net, makes it easier to vote and thus benefits Democrats.

Consider Ohio and its loyal Republcian Party foot soldier, Secretary of State John Husted. Husted, backed by the state's Republicans, tried to implement a cynical plan in 2012 that allowed for early voting in the final weeks of the campaign, but only during work hours. Most cynically, he tried to bar early voting in the final weekend before the campaign. Many black churches in Ohio use that final Sunday to bus their congregants to the polls, and Democrats were relying on this for their get-out-the-vote efforts. Not everyone was restricted from voting during that final weekend, however: military members -- who are more likely to vote for Republicans than African-Americans are -- were allowed to vote that final weekend. Ohio Democrats and the DNC filed a lawsuit demanding that the final weekend to be restored for all voters. The Romney campaign, naturally, suggested that Obama and the Democrats hated the troops by... wanting to let everyone vote and not just military members?

There was a lot of bullshit flying around.

A three-judge panel ruled in the Democrats' favor and restored the early voting hours, though Husted refused to enforce the decision until the Supreme Court rejected the Ohio Republicans' appeal. The Ohio Republicans' argument, hilariously, was that their "motivation was to make things easier for election administrators." Many election administrators themselves said that they had no problem with early voting and in fact found it easier if voters weren't all jamming the polls on Election Day. Besides, since when do Republicans care at all about making life easier for government employees?

Ohio Republicans tried to give it a second shot last year by passing new restrictions through the legislature. It eliminated a week of same-day voter registration and, once again, cut off early voting on that final weekend and after work hours. The ACLU sued and eventually reached an out-of-court settlement with our man John Husted. It restored early voting on the final Sunday and after-work early voting hours. It did, however, let stand the elimination of same-day registration.

Expect more hijinks as the election nears.

We should not expect the Republican Party apparatus to embrace Hillary Clinton's call for harmonized early voting standards. But it does at least put them in a position of having to explain, again, why they don't support this, for which the best answer they have is, it's a hassle. Or they'll get on their high horse about the time-honored American tradition of getting up on Election Day and heading to the polls to cast a ballot at the local town hall, harumph harumph. This is a romanticized notion that only really appeals to old retired people in small towns and rural areas, and they vote Republican.

(If Republicans want to put a cap on how early early voting can begin, that's a fair consideration that's totally tradable for nationwide early voting standards!)

One other proposal that I'd like to hear from Clinton: flooding densely populated and congested polling stations with voting machines. It's no coincidence that in some states controlled by Republicans, urban and suburban polling stations that are expected to go highly Democratic have relatively few machines, which means long wait times, which means voters might get frustrated and not bother voting. I reported from polling stations in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. on Election Day 2012 and what I saw was scandalous: multi-hour lines throughout Arlington, Fairfax and other counties, where there were only a handful of machines that would occasionally break. Had voters not been so patient -- waiting in line several hours, late into the evening past scheduled poll closures -- Romney may well have won that state. It shouldn't have to be that way, though I'd welcome an explanation for why it should.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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