Hillary Clinton to outline voting rights platform in Texas speech today

Hillary Clinton will give a speech on voting rights at an event later today at Texas Southern University, a historically black college. As The New York Times reports, aside from going after her Republican rivals — many of whom are governors or former governors who enacted some of the most arcane restrictions on voting rights in the country — and highlighting Texas’s especially poor record of making it harder for its citizens to vote:

She will also propose a nationwide early-voting standard of at least 20 days before an election, call for an increase in online voter registration and restate her position that ex-felons should have their voting rights restored.

The choice of Texas, particularly an HBCU in Texas, for a speech on voting rights is symbolic in and of itself. Texas has some of the strictest voter ID laws on the books, and is currently embroiled in a number of voter suppression controversies. In the past week alone, Texas has been the center of attention in stories regarding limiting “one person, one vote” to eligible voters, denying US-born children of immigrants birth certificates and systematically canceling the voter registrations of citizens who changed their address through the DMV.

UPDATE: Clinton went ahead and called for universal, automatic voter registration in her speech, going beyond what the New York Times reported she would call for yesterday.

In the last few weeks, Hillary Clinton’s general counsel, Marc Elias, has brought lawsuits against a number of states that have passed a series of voter suppression bills in recent years. A lawsuit against Wisconsin’s litany of voting restrictions was announced earlier this week, while a lawsuit against Ohio’s restrictions was announced in May. Georgia, Nevada and Virginia could be next in line as Elias attempts to roll back laws that have systematically disenfranchised low-income, minority and senior voters. While Elias is bringing these lawsuits independently from his role in the Clinton campaign, the choice to bring lawsuits in swing-ier states, as opposed to deep-red states like Alabama with similarly extreme restrictions, shows their clear electoral interest.

Hillary Clinton, via Brett Weinstein / Flickr

Hillary Clinton, via Brett Weinstein / Flickr

But going beyond the lawsuits, it’s refreshing to see forward-looking policy proposals from Clinton that advance voting rights, however modest, rather than only making defensive reactions to voting rights violations that have already taken place. Actively endorsing electoral reforms that would expand ballot access is a big first step that could signal her making the issue central to her campaign. Especially as these lawsuits in swing states unfold, voting rights is bound to pop up in the news cycle on a semi-regular basis between now and November 2016.

There’s also something to be said for her specific choice of policies. There is no good (or even bad) argument against online voter registration, so it will be great to see GOP candidates try to rationalize opposing it. However, to my knowledge no major presidential candidate has ever called for felon restoration of rights — a central piece of any criminal justice reform agenda. Last month, a restoration of rights bill in Maryland was vetoed by Governor Larry Hogan, drawing the ire of voting rights and criminal justice reform advocates both in and out of the state.

While the Obama administration has endorsed felon restoration of rights, that announcement didn’t come until last year, after President Obama’s reelection.

However, we should hold off on being too excited about Hillary’s call for nationwide early voting. While it gets the political message across, planting a rhetorical flag on the side of open democracy, evidence for it resulting in more voters at the end of the day is mixed at best.

In a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Political Science, researchers found that early voting by itself actually decreases voter turnout, as it robs “Election Day of its stimulating effects.” Social pressure plays a major role in voter turnout, and social pressure is going to be far lower if Election “Day” is spread out over 21 days. Campaigns also have less of an incentive to mobilize voters during the run-up to Election Day as they do in states without early voting, as the marginal benefit of each dollar spent during the GOTV phase of a campaign diminishes with each vote cast before then.

The same study found that same-day voter registration did boost turnout — a finding that has been corroborated by subsequent research — and it didn’t take mail-in voting into consideration. States with mail-in balloting have consistently higher rates of voter turnout than states with in-person voting.

To be clear, this isn’t to say that early voting is a bad idea altogether; it’s only to say that there are better ideas that should come first. Aside from same-day registration and/or mail-in voting (to say nothing of automatic voter registration), that list includes making Election Day a national holiday, standardizing the ballot and standardizing the polling place.

And, of course, online voter registration and felon restoration of rights.

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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