When Hillary Clinton gave her speech Thursday on voting rights, her campaign staff had already given a pretty ample set of previews to publications across the country.
No one was expecting fire. But Clinton’s speech – focusing on some of what Clinton presented as the ugliest truths about voting in the United States – was no boilerplate stump speech. Clinton went big. She called for universal and automatic voter registration and a 20-day (or more) period of early voting in every state, before every election. Clinton's speech identified the work of protecting and expanding voting rights as a critical part of her campaign.
Clinton talked about the fact that African Americans consistently rank among the most deeply affected by the contours of Voter ID laws, must wait in the longest lines on Election Day and cast ballots at polling sites that very often house fewer machines and poll workers than other sites. That, Clinton told the crowd, “is no accident.”
Then, her campaign sent out a tweet that drove the point home.
In case you don’t know, a student ID can’t be used to vote in Texas, but a concealed carry permit can. The implication: the Democratic Party’s base of young and minority voters are far more likely to be rendered unable to vote than the GOP’s gun-loving base. For Clinton, that's a situation that inherently ties her political fate to groups of voters she says are imperiled.
It was also no accident that Clinton’s carefully stage-managed speech was scheduled for Texas Southern University, a historically black college in Houston. After all, the current Voter ID law that governs voting in Texas was initially blocked by federal officials. Then, within hours of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2013 Voting Rights Act decision eliminating the requirement that states like Texas run voting changes past federal authorities, the state put the law into effect.
African Americans, even in big red states like Texas which the most hopeful Democrats insist sits on the verge of turning purple, remain a core part of the constituency that Clinton needs. But Clinton needs to more than attract African-American voters to her campaign. She needs them fired up to vote.
Consider this. Black America’s first record-setting turnout for Barack Obama in 2008 might have been about making history. But in 2012, when a larger proportion of blacks voted than any other group for the second presidential election in a row, plenty of the nation’s political prognosticators attributed that to the sense that black access to the franchise was under active attack.
And so, Clinton came to Houston. She declared war on Voter ID and other Republican efforts to rein in things like early voting. And she asked the audience to join her.
The day before Clinton waged her frontal attack, New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice issued a report offering a far more subdued but equally cautionary look at the nation’s voting rights situation. And the center's assessment of 2015 is, well, nuanced.
The most stringent Voter ID laws could disenfranchise anywhere from 8 to 12 percent of the population in these states, the Brennan Center’s Myrna Pérez, deputy director of organization’s Democracy Program, told me.
That’s also a group disproportionately made up of people of color, very young voters and the very old, the poor and women. These groups are less likely to have one of the forms of ID these laws require and more likely not to have the kinds of underlying documents needed to obtain them such as a birth certificate or passport. For women, the common practice of changing one's last name can seriously complicate the work of obtaining ID needed to vote.
After a raft of bills around the country in 2011 aiming to require ID to vote, and several legal challenges, some have been put in place. Fourteen states have passed voting law changes that if not overturned by a court will be in place for the first time in a presidential race on Election Day 2016. North Dakota also passed its own Voter ID law this year. But only some of these laws include the kind of narrow lists of acceptable forms of ID like the law in Texas, according to that Brennan Center report. And those are the laws voting rights organizations are fighting in court.
In the court of public opinion, fighting these laws is arguably more difficult. That's because polls show huge majorities of Americans agree with the concept of requiring ID to vote. So when Clinton pushes for more early voting, it's likely to be popular; when she warns that voter ID disenfranchises African Americans, it's a tougher sell.
But Clinton isn't the only one taking up the cause, and the movement isn't all in one direction.
At the other end of the spectrum, a small group of states that will likely surprise people in the political know – Florida, Oklahoma and New Mexico – have seen bipartisan groups of legislators create laws to make online voter registration a reality. Maryland and Minnesota came close to overturning laws that bar convicted felons from voting, a practice that excludes millions of citizens around the country from voting booths.
And in Oregon, Democrats pushed through a measure that will come very close to Clinton’s universal registration idea. The state will register anyone with an Oregon driver’s license who is eligible to vote. Oregon license holders will have to take steps to opt out of registration if they are adamant about it. The law is expected to add anywhere from 300,000 to 400,000 voters to Oregon’s rolls.
These fights have largely happened off the front page and in the little-watched state Houses of America. Clinton is trying to put them on the national radar -- with a clear eye toward getting key demographic groups geared up to elect another Democrat as president.