In one of her first speeches as a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton took aim straight at the GOP—including several Republican governors in the 2016 field—for what she categorized as a widespread undermining of the American people's right to vote.
"We have a responsibility to say clearly and directly what's really going on in our country," said Clinton, who spoke Thursday at Texas Southern University in Houston after receiving an award. "Because 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 said the Republican Party "at all levels of government" must stop "fear-mongering about a phantom epidemic" of voter fraud and explain "why they're so scared of letting citizens have their say."
Clinton's message Thursday at the historically black university was aimed at a community she'll need to win over if she has any hope of making it to the White House: black voters.
Black political leaders say there's no way Clinton will see the kind of black voter turnout President Obama saw in his two elections. But she'll nevertheless need to present a campaign message that's appealing to that community if she hopes to get close to his numbers. During her speech, she reflected on the life of the late Barbara Jordan, for whom Clinton's award was named—a civil rights leader and Texas congresswoman who advocated for the Civil Rights Act. Clinton said the statute's "heart has been ripped out."
Clinton is one of many in the Democratic Party who believe working-class voters should have more access to the polls, and who reject Republican-supported laws, including voter ID, that Democrats say negatively affect voter turnout. She proposed several measures aimed at expanding access to voting, like scheduling at least 20 early-voting days in every state, including evening and weekend hours. Congress must pass laws that will "restore the full protections" of the Voting Rights Act, she said. Clinton added that the country should back recommendations by the bipartisan presidential election commission to expand early voting, and that there should be "universal, automatic" voter registration once a person turns 18.
Clinton set herself up as a foil to the Republican governors in the 2016 race, whom she called out by name, for what she views as poor records on voting rights. The first was former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who announced his intent to run for president earlier Thursday. She said that in Perry's state, voters can use a concealed-weapons permit to vote but not a student ID, and that he "signed a law that a federal court said was actually written with the purpose of discriminating against minority voters." Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker "cut back early voting" and made it more difficult for college students to vote, she said, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie shot down legislation to extend voting, and in Florida, former Gov. Jeb Bush "purged" voter rolls before the 2000 election.
"We should be clearing the way for more people to vote, not putting up every roadblock anyone can imagine," Clinton said. "Yet, unfortunately, today there are people who offer themselves to be leaders, whose actions have undercut this fundamental American principle."
In a particularly self-aware moment, Clinton described how crucial voter turnout is.
"Now more than ever, we need our citizens to actually get out and vote for people who want to hear what's on their minds," she said.
Perhaps in an attempt to tie herself more closely to the president, Clinton invoked Obama's name on a couple of occasions. At one point, she referenced how she and her husband "invited a young senator from Illinois" to tour Houston with them after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
Discussing how Jordan worked to extend the "special protection" of the Voting Rights Act to minority Americans, Clinton said she wished "we could hear that voice one more time.
"I wish we could hear her speak up for the student who has to wait hours for his or her right to vote, for the grandmother who is turned away from the polls because her driver's license expired, for the father who has done his time and paid his debt to society but still hasn't gotten his rights back."
Clinton said that although there are "well-intentioned" election officials across the country, disparities in voting practices between non-minority and minority communities aren't accidental. She described how "many of the worst offenses against the right to vote"—like officials changing election dates and polling locations—"happen below the radar."
Clinton said an effort must be made to make voting easier across the country, as opposed to efforts from Republicans who she said are "systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens" from casting their ballots.
"What part of democracy are they afraid of?" she asked.