As you may have heard, Hillary Clinton is already leaning into the ever-simmering battle over voting. Her Democratic allies are preparing to wage a national legal battle against GOP state-level voting restrictions, and she is calling for a national 20-day early voting period.
Automatic voter registration for citizens has long been championed by voting reformers as a key part of modernizing our voting system. Clinton’s proposal would require the registration of all citizens in every state when they turn 18 years of age, unless they opt out. She is also endorsing the general goal of universal registration for those over 18, without endorsing a specific mechanism to accomplish this. According to the Brennan Center, there are various ways to add people to the voter rolls, such as when changes of address are filed. States can also implement required universal registration for people of all ages, as Oregon has done. Clinton cited Oregon as an example today.
Voting reform advocates favor universal, automatic registration as a way to streamline and simplify the registration process, to eliminate matching problems between state databases, reduce the possibility of voter registration fraud, and maximize voter participation.
In political terms, Clinton’s call for universal voting registration appears to be a bid to energize millennial voters. As it is, the broader voting access push — like her recent moves leftward on immigration, climate change, and sentencing reform — is partly about mobilizing core Obama coalition groups, including minorities. Today’s proposal is more heavily focused on the young. After all, one of the key unknowns of the cycle is whether Clinton will be able to turn out Obama voters on the same levels he did, and young voters — who were excited by the historical nature of Obama’s candidacy — are key to that.
“There’s a good policy reason why Clinton might support universal voting, but there’s also a good political reason,” Rick Hasen, a voting law expert, tells me. “These are issues that motivate the Democratic base. Talking about Republicans suppressing the vote gets Democrats excited, just like talking about voter fraud motivates Republicans.”
Indeed, Clinton’s proposal today seems likely to draw opposition from conservatives and Republicans. For one thing, they would probably seize on the chance to attack her for favoring another government mandate and federal encroachment on states, and also to argue that government mandated registration could produce other types of fraud. The Clinton camp will probably try to pitch this proposal — and her push for more voting access in general — in a way that rebuffs GOP efforts to turn independents against it, casting it as key to maintaining the integrity of the process.
For another thing, as Hasen has noted elsewhere, the battle over voting access revolves around a much deeper dispute, in which some opponents of increased access have explicitly argued that making voting harder actually leads not only to less voter fraud but to more informed choices.
“There are two ways of thinking about voting,” Hasen tells me. “The first, which is associated with conservatives, is that voting is about choosing the best candidate. If you take that view, you might want restrictions that winnow out uninterested or uneducated voters. Democrats and liberals are more likely to take the second view — that we should all have an easy way to vote and share in political power.”
That seems like an argument the Clinton campaign might want to have.