Friday, June 05, 2015

Clinton Voting Rights Speech: The Significance Is Its Existence

I've spend most of my working career helping people vote. It's my calling. So I was thrilled that the front running presidential candidate chose to devote an entire address to voting rights and election reform.

Obviously, in the current political climate, where government is divided and election reform issues are highly partisan, any specific proposal is DOA in a Republican Congress, and even the rosiest scenarios don't envision President Clinton 45 sweeping in a Democratic US House. (MAYBE the Senate.)

But as election reform has become partisan, it has also become a base issue, on both sides. Voter ID is one of Scott Walker's biggest applause lines. And it's no accident that Hillary Clinton chose a historically black college in Houston for her speech.

But election law reforms often have unintended consequences, so the details of Hillary Clinton's speech are critical.

Much of the speech is anecdotal, and some of the anecdotes imply additional issues. But at the core of the speech there is a four point plan.
First, Congress should move quickly to pass legislation to repair that damage and restore the full protections that American voters need and deserve.

I was in the Senate in 2006 when we voted 98 to zero to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act after an exhaustive review process.

There had been more than 20 hearings in the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.  Testimony from expert witnesses.  Investigative reports documenting continuing discrimination in covered jurisdictions.   There were more than 15,000 pages of legislative record.

Now that is how the system is supposed to work. You gather the evidence, you weigh it and you decide. And we did 98 to nothing. We put principle ahead of politics. That is what Congress needs to do again.
This is aimed at the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which overturned required "pre-clearance" of changes in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination. There's been bipartisan lip service to re-writing the overturned sections, but no action, and formerly affected states have rushed to enact new restrictions on voting.
Second, we should implement the recommendations of the bipartisan presidential commission to improve voting... These are common sense reforms, including expanding early, absentee, and mail voting.  Providing online voter registration.  Establishing the principle that no one should ever have to wait more than 30 minutes to cast your vote.
Iowa's already in fairly good shape on most of these. Online registration didn't pass this year, but it gained momentum and seems only to be a matter of working out details. As for wait times, see below.
Third, we should set a standard across our country of at least 20 days of early in-person voting everywhere – including opportunities for weekend and evening voting.

If families coming out of church on Sunday before an election are inspired to go vote, they should be free to do just that.
Most of the rest of the world actually has Election Day on Sunday. Just saying.
And we know that early in-person voting will reduce those long lines and give more citizens the chance to participate, especially those who have work or family obligations that make it difficult to get to the polls on Election Day.
Again, Iowa already has most of this - and more, with a 40 day early voting period. Weekend voting is relatively uncommon. State law requires auditors to be open the two Saturdays before a general election and the Saturday before a primary.

Sunday voting in Iowa is very rare. Our county usually has one or maybe two before large elections. But "Souls To The Polls" drives have become a big part of black political culture in recent years, and expanding and facilitating that is a good thing. And if you have a culturally conservative mega-church, you can do it too.

Finally, and this one seems like the biggest reform:
I am calling for universal, automatic voter registration.  Everyone, every young man or young woman, in every state in the union should be automatically registered to vote when they turn eighteen – unless they actively choose to opt-out... When you move, your registration should move with you.  If you are an eligible voter, and want to be registered, you should be a registered voter – period. 
This implies a national voter registration database - which would end immeasurable amounts of frustration and confusion. I can already hear the privacy advocates panicking - IИ SФVIЗT ЯЦSSIД GФVЭЯЙMЗИT ЯЭGISTЗЯS УФЦ! - but we all crossed that bridge a long time ago, didn't we.

It would also be one of the biggest possible line-shrinkers. In my county, at least, the biggest Election Day bottleneck is at the check-in stations. It goes smoothly for the person who is registered in advance. But for the person who has moved, or is a new registration, there's extra paperwork, which slows them down and slows down everyone in the line behind them.

Which gets me to the point of one of my concerns from Clinton's speech, not part of the core proposal but something implied by an anecdote.
It’s not a surprise for you to hear that studies and everyday experiences confirm that minority voters are more likely than white voters to wait in long lines at the polls.  They are also far more likely to vote in polling places with insufficient numbers of voting machines.

In South Carolina for example, there’s supposed to be one machine for every 250 voters.  But in minority areas, that rule is just often overlooked.  In Richland Country, nearly 90 percent of the precincts failed to meet the standard required by law in 2012.  Instead of 250 voters per machine, in one precinct it was more than 430 voters per machine.  Not surprisingly, people trying to cast a ballot there faced massive delays.

Now there are many fair-minded, well-intentioned election officials and state legislators all over this country.  But this kind of disparity that I just mentioned does not happen by accident.  Now some of you may have heard me or my husband say one of our favorite sayings from Arkansas, of course I learned it from him. “You find a turtle on a fence post, it did not get there on it’s own.” Well all of these problems with voting did not just happen by accident. And it is just wrong, it’s wrong to try to prevent, undermine and inhibit American’s right to vote. Its counter to the values we share.

Which seems like a good excuse to update: our new pet turtle is doing very well.

This seems to strongly imply legislation that would get the feds involved in equipment and worker allocation, and I can't help but view that through my local lens.

First off, "machines" are not the bottleneck in Iowa; as I noted the registration table is..  Machines may be a waiting issue in states with touch screens, but those are banned in our state and the norm is optical scanned paper ballots that feed into the reader in about a second. There may be an occasional wait for a booth in a general election with a long ballot, but that's easily addressed.

The South Carolina law Clinton references allocates workers based on the number of registered voters. That's not always the best measure of voter interest in an election - in fact, it's a relatively weak indicator.

Maybe the concerns of a college town are unusual. But in Iowa City, in a half dozen downtown precincts, the rolls are clogged with hundreds of students who graduated and moved away years ago, and federal election law makes it next to impossible to remove them. As I noted earlier this year, we have a 45 year old woman who last voted in 1992 still registered in her sorority house.

Clinton's automatic registration proposal, and the implied national database, would help address that. So the rolls would be cleaner. But that doesn't make people show up.

Turnout varies wildly by type of election, and that variation is inconsistent. Every precinct peaks in presidential years, declines in off-years, and dips even lower for local elections. But in neighborhoods full of infrequent voters, like students or minorities, the valleys are much deeper.

You can make voting easier, and that's good. But that doesn't make a student interested in a city council election. Turnout in Iowa City's core student precincts regularly drops into single digits. Not percentages - a single digit number of voters. If federal legislation allocates workers and equipment, you could see precincts with more workers than voters.

Is that the price we have to pay to make sure there's enough workers to avoid hours-long lines in Florida and Ohio minority neighborhoods? Maybe. But should our local taxpayers have to pay for it? Hint: The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, which had some flaws but had some good stuff, had money in it.

So the locals need some level of control and input, and any formulas in a hypothetical bill need to be written carefully.

A few other implications from Clinton's speech:
if you want to vote in (Texas), you can use a concealed weapon permit as a valid form of identification – but a valid student ID isn’t good enough?
This is a real issue, but Clinton didn't go beyond the anecdote. What SHOULD be legitimate ID, and should ID be required at all?

Tangent: THIS is the kind of question I'd like to follow up on that the national press would not. If and when there is a media avail, it'll be all email and foundation. I don't support the press strategy - but I don't blame her either.
As a Senator, I championed a bill called the Count Every Vote Act.  If it had become law, it would have made Election Day a federal holiday and mandated early voting opportunities.  Deceiving voters, including by sending flyers into minority neighborhoods with false voting times and places, would have become a federal crime.  And many Americans with criminal convictions who had paid their debt to society would have finally gotten their voting rights back.
I like Election Day as a holiday, and not just because it makes things easier for voters. (Although, as noted, most of the world votes on weekends.) It makes things easier for election administrators, too. One of the biggest things the state, or even schools, could do: Close school on Election Day. It's free up space in schools for voting, and free up teachers, who would be a fantastic pool of poll workers.

And of course Clinton touches on the felony disenfranchisement issue here. The four point plan doesn't include it, but it's something that needs to be made easier and more clear.
We need more Justices on the Supreme Court who will protect every citizen’s right to vote, I mean the principle underlying our Constitution, which we had to fight for a long time to make apply to everybody, one person, one vote and we need a Supreme Court that cares more about protecting the right to vote of a person than the right of a corporation to buy an election.

Campaign finance reform is not an issue that shifts votes yet. But it's starting to become a rallying point for the Democratic base, and more and more independents are mentioning it thought it remains low on the priority list.

In the end, the priority is what's important here. At a time when Hillary Clinton is making relatively few public appearances and is under constant media criticism, she chose to devote an entire major speech and a full news cycle to the issue of voting rights. Maybe she wants to control the message a little too much for the media's taste - but yesterday's speech was a good message to have.

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