The Double Bind of Voting Rights

No one can make reforming ballot laws a national issue like Hillary Clinton. And no one can make them less politically likely, either.

Donna Carson / Reuters

If Hillary Clinton’s speech demanding voting-law reform was merely a political gambit, it seems to have worked.

On Thursday, the Democratic presidential hopeful delivered a forceful speech in which she called for voting-law reform. In particular, she said all Americans should be automatically registered to vote at 18 and for expanded hours and days of voting. Clinton also specifically called out several current or former Republican governors now seeking the GOP nomination for backing restrictive voting laws, including Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.

On Friday, Perry, Walker, and Christie fired back with criticism of Clinton. (Bush hasn’t yet responded.)

That seems like exactly the effect her campaign wanted in the immediate term. Clinton is unlikely to garner the same degree of enthusiasm that black voters gave to President Obama, so she’s seeking policy ideas to motivate the group. Defending voting laws is a way to demonstrate to minority voters that Clinton is concerned about their plight—and, of course, increasing the number of minority voters is also likely to benefit the Democratic Party and its standard bearer. By firing back at Clinton, Republicans took her bait and helped her make the point. (Not that replying won’t confer its own political advantages.)

My National Journal colleague Josh Kraushaar, among others, focuses on this political calculus. But Clinton is intervening in a long-running debate over laws imposing restrictions on voting, by limiting hours or requiring IDs. Republicans around the country have proposed, and often passed, such laws in recent years, arguing that they’re necessary to preserve the integrity of the vote. There’s little evidence, though, that voter-fraud is a widespread problem. It appears, in fact, to be exceedingly rare.

Supporters of these laws argue that even one fraudulent vote is a tragedy in a democracy. But to critics, preventing even one eligible voter from exercising the right to vote seems equally tragic. And that, in fact, that seems to be a much more common effect of these laws.

There’s ample evidence that doing things like restricting voting hours and eliminating early voting cuts into minority and low-income turnout, in part because members of these groups report that they don’t have the time to take off work during the day to vote. (That’s the rationale behind early and weekend voting, and also behind calls to either make Voting Day a national holiday or move it to a weekend.) And requiring voter IDs can also make it harder for people to vote, especially in states with idiosyncratic rules that, for example, make it legal to vote with a gun license but not a state-university ID. Official IDs are not always free, and they’re not always locally accessible.

Nate Silver looked at the literature on voter-ID laws a few years ago and concluded that although there’s lots of superficial disagreement, most studies come to a similar conclusion: The laws reduce turnout by about 2 percent of the registered number of voters in a state. John Sides did the same, but found the evidence inconclusive.

But whatever its merits, Clinton’s gambit also poses a political paradox. While Clinton’s proposals might lead to a fairer landscape for voters overall if enacted, the very gambit undermines itself. Because she’s the Democratic frontrunner, she is able to put the issue on the national agenda like no one else—as the last 24 hours have shown. But because she’s the Democratic frontrunner, she’s also likely to make the issue so politically toxic that no Republican will be willing to touch it. Since the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, some Republicans—most notably Representative James Sensenbrenner—have voiced a desire to restore the law. Clinton’s proposal, of course, would push farther than that. If Clinton keeps speaking up, it’s likely to keep any Republicans from sticking their heads up to agree. (The Democratic push is even being funded by George Soros.) And without voting-rights reform, it’s difficult for Democrats to turn out enough voters to secure the majorities necessary to overcome their opposition.

This isn’t a totally novel political dynamic. In fact, Democrats have seen a similar one on immigration very recently: Creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is thought to be a politically wise move for Democrats because it’s believed that it would create a large batch of new Democratic voters. Yet immigration reform remains deader than dead in Congress because it’s a Democratic political cause. The effect with voting laws is even more direct, since enacting Clinton’s reforms would instantly produce a new bunch of eligible likely Democrats.

That’s the trouble with disenfranchisement—it’s difficult for the disenfranchised to repeal.