GOP candidates try, fail to respond to Clinton on voting rights

Last week, Hillary Clinton laid down what was arguably the most radical voting rights agenda in decades, calling for 20 days of nationwide early voting and automatic voter registration — a policy that would add over 50 million Americans to the voting rolls.

In her speech outlining the proposals, she also criticized her Republican opponents, by name, for “systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting” via the myriad ways in which they have tried to legally rig our nation’s elections through extensive legislation and bureaucratic indiscretion. From ID requirements to registration restrictions to poll taxes, Republicans have in no uncertain terms become the anti-voting party since Barack Obama’s election in 2008.

And they didn’t take too kindly to being called out over their anti-democratic platform.

Rick Perry responded to Clinton’s attacks by claiming that he was just the messenger. In an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday, said that he “just happened to be the governor who signed” the legislation, and since the majority of Texans supported the state’s draconian voting restrictions, specifically the state’s photo ID law that allows a gun permit but not a student ID, who was he to tell them they were wrong? Here’s the video:

Given the fact that Texan citizens are behind the Supreme Court case that could redefine “one person, one vote” to dilute the influence of minority voters, one can’t help but recognize his point: Texan voters don’t like Texans voting. But not too long ago, they also didn’t like black Texans marrying white Texans. Part of living in a constitutional democracy is that there are certain things you don’t put up for a vote: who gets to vote is high on that list, if not at the top.

It didn’t take much followup from Bash to turn 2016’s nerd-with-glasses Perry into 2012’s I-don’t-know-my-own-platform Perry. When asked to defend the specific gun permit/student ID restriction, Perry mumbled something about library cards and airplanes before declaring that voting was a states’ rights issue and asserting, unironically, that Texas makes it easy to vote. When Bash pointed out that a federal judge had declared Texas’s voting restrictions to have been passed with “discriminatory intent,” Perry rejected the premise, saying “I could probably find a federal judge to say just about anything.”

John Kasich denounced Clinton’s speech as “demagoguery” on Fox News before pointing out that Ohio has 27 days of early voting — a full week more than Clinton’s proposed 20 days — and that if Clinton wanted to sue a state, she should sue her home state of New York, which currently does not have any early voting. Fox then threw up a quote from Ohio Secretary of State John Husted proclaiming, a la Perry, that Ohio makes it easy for its citizens to vote.

Kasich, of course, failed to mention that Ohio has 27 days of early voting despite his best efforts as governor to shrink that number. In 2011, Kasich signed a bill that cut back early voting so severely that citizens successfully petitioned for a referendum that would have overturned the law at the polls, leading Ohio’s legislature to repeal the law and keep the bulk of the state’s early voting intact.

Even if that weren’t the case, the argument that Clinton’s claims are disingenuous because New York doesn’t have early voting doesn’t hold water. Not only has Clinton never held state-level office in New York, her proposals would apply to every state, Ohio and New York both included.

Scott Walker, also interviewed by CNN’s Dana Bash, maintained that Wisconsin’s laundry list of voting restrictions make it “easy to vote, but hard to cheat,” even when Bash noted that practically no one cheats.

Scott Walker, via DonkeyHotey / Flickr

Scott Walker, via DonkeyHotey / Flickr

To be clear, over 300,000 Wisconsin voters have been affected by the numerous, restrictive and, frankly, creative ways in which Scott Walker has tinkered with the state’s electoral system since becoming governor. Oh, and the only documented cases of fraud that could have been prevented by those laws in that timeframe were committed by a Republican who donated to Walker’s campaigns.

While many voting restrictions in Wisconsin are still on the books (and are the subject of a lawsuit brought by a lawyer affiliated with Hillary Clinton’s campaign), the state’s voter ID law was previously found to be unconstitutional, in large part due to lack of evidence that could justify it.

Chris Christie insisted that Clinton “doesn’t know the first thing about voting rights” before asserting that “she just wants an opportunity to commit greater acts of voter fraud around the country.” Of course, if one were to commit voter fraud in some kind of systematic manner, they would need to know “the first thing” about voting rights, but that’s neither here nor there.

It didn’t take long for New Jersey Democrats to point out that Christie’s living in a bit of a glass house when it comes to tampering with electoral outcomes. From NorthJersey:

Democratic officials bristled at Christie’s “voter fraud” comments on Friday, and they pointed out he once spent $12 million to hold a separate, special election in October 2013 for the U.S. Senate seat that went vacant after Frank Lautenberg’s death. Christie could have set the election for Nov. 4, when he was up for reelection, but Democrats said he feared losing votes by sharing a ballot with Cory Booker, a popular Democrat who won the Senate seat.

In any case, New Jersey doesn’t have a voter ID law on the books. Clinton called Christie out in her speech for vetoing legislation that would have expanded early voting in the state, but by Republican standards Christie has done nothing to protect the “sanctity” of the ballot box in New Jersey. The most substantive debate about voting rights currently going on in the state is over online voting; Senator Cory Booker recently (and correctly) called out the state for the “absurdity” of not offering citizens an online option for voter registration.

Jeb Bush has, thus far, said nothing in response to Clinton’s speech. She specifically charged him for conducting a racially-biased purge of the voter rolls in advance of the 2000 presidential election — an election that was decided by under 600 votes in Florida. Bush has never offered a satisfactory defense of that purge, most likely because there isn’t one.

What was missing from all of the Republican responses to Clinton’s voting rights speech was any serious criticism of the address’ biggest element: automatic voter registration. One of the only most serious critiques of that proposal came from The National Review‘s Daniel Foster:

But the view of democracy associated with the desire for universal or near-universal participation (we already have near-universal franchise) is facile and vicious. The need to register to vote is just about the most modest restriction on ballot access I can think of, which is why it works so well as a democratic filter: It improves democratic hygiene because the people who can’t be bothered to register (as opposed to those who refuse to vote as a means of protest) are, except in unusual cases, civic idiots.

If that’s the best conservatives have against automatic voter registration, they don’t have much. As I’ve noted before, voter registration was not enacted as a “democratic filter,” it was enacted first as a financial filter and then as a racial one. What’s more, universal voter registration has nothing to do with universal participation; that’s called mandatory voting. In 2012, while less than 60 percent of eligible voters voted in 2012, nearly 87 percent of registered voters cast ballots. And millions of would-be voters who made up that gap were kept from the ballot box by restrictions on registration.

Asserting, without evidence, that the only reason why someone wouldn’t register to vote is that they’re too lazy or stupid to figure it out isn’t an argument. It’s a baseless assumption, like the time Reince Priebus said that voter fraud constitutes between one and two percent of the Democratic vote.

If the true “civic idiots” are already choosing to not participate, telling them that they don’t have to do something that they already have no intention of doing isn’t going to change that calculus. But there remains no sound argument for continuing to exclude the millions of Americans who want to participate in the electoral process, but are being systematically denied the opportunity to do so through ID and registration requirements.

This post has been updated to clarify that Hillary Clinton has never held state-level office in New York. She has held federal office there, serving as the state’s Senator.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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