Putting Out a Fire with Gasoline: Partisan Election Reform Push Likely Makes Reform More Difficult

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[Image by Bahri Altay courtesy of nmhc]

UC-Irvine’s Rick Hasen has a new opinion piece in Slate in which he takes issue with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s new aggressive stance on election reform – not because of its content but because of its approach:

Hillary Clinton spoke at Texas Southern University last week, where she put forward some good and provocative ideas for improving our elections. She wants Congress to fix the part of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013. She wants to expand early voting periods nationally to at least 20 days. And most provocatively, she advocates automatic universal voter registration across the country, including a program to automatically register high school students to vote before their 18th birthdays.

But the partisan way she’s framed the issue–by blaming Republicans for all the voting problems–makes it less likely these changes will actually be implemented should she be elected president. Instead, she’s offering red meat to her supporters while alienating the allies she would need to get any reforms enacted.

Hasen’s critique – which I share – is that while making election reform a campaign issue may be good for firing up voters, it doesn’t help with actually getting reform done:

However, talking about election reform so provocatively may also doom the chances for meaningful election reform. Clinton used her speech not only to advance these ideas but to bash Republican opponents, including Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, both of whom passed restrictive voting laws in the last few years. “What part of democracy are they afraid of?” she asked.

Sure, partisan Democrats lapped it up, but Clinton is politicizing election reform in the process. While Republicans are responsible for most of the recent efforts to suppress voting, Clinton is accusing all Republicans of acting in bad faith. That message will likely alienate moderate Republicans who could be her natural partners for reforms in the future.

Most importantly, it creates problems for Republicans who support at least part of the reform agenda. In particular, Hasen notes the efforts of Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted to convince recalcitrant legislators of his own party that the state and its counties would be better off with online voter registration – efforts which are exponentially more difficult now that the Clinton campaign is using election reform as an issue against Republicans.

It also doesn’t help that Ohio is being sued yet again about early voting despite a process that is significantly more generous than many states, including Clinton’s own:

The issue became even more politicized when the New York Times revealed this weekend that liberal billionaire George Soros, a favorite boogeyman of the right, is bankrolling the effort to litigate challenges to restrictive election rules in North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Hillary Clinton’s lawyer, Marc Elias, is bringing these cases not on behalf of the campaign but apparently with the campaign’s blessing. The lawsuits are especially infuriating to Republicans because the Ohio one attacks the state’s cutback in early voting periods to 27 days. Not only is that still more than the number of days Clinton supports but it is 27 more days than the zero days of early voting offered in Clinton’s home state of New York. [emphasis added]

[Fun aside: Hasen and Elias had a Twitter exchange about this issue, with Hasen complaining that ‘[t]he campaign trail is the last place to have a rational discussion about how to fix our dysfunctional election system”, to which Elias responded “Wrong–it’s the best place to expose voter suppression for what it is. Worst place is in academic papers no one reads.” As someone who’s never run for office, filed a lawsuit or written a true academic paper, they’re both wrong – blogs like mine are clearly where the action is. If there are any billionaires out there looking to get in on the ground floor you know where to reach me :)]

In all seriousness, however, the Clinton speech could shut the window on bipartisan cooperation on election issues for the next year and a half – with no guarantee that the the new crop of elected officials (Presidents and everyone else) will be able to work together starting in 2017. I am hoping that the short attention span of the political cycle may allow this firefight to subside and give policymakers on both sides the opportunity to keep improving the nation’s election system before voters return to the polls in 2016. That won’t be able to happen if election policy becomes a wedge issue on the campaign trail – at least to the extent it makes unnecessary enemies as opposed to simply stating differences.

Thanks to Rick for sharing these views (and for his kind words about my work); our pleas for non-partisanship often don’t get much traction (indeed, my Twitter feed might be interesting today thanks to Rick’s piece and this post) but I’m glad someone else is out there asking for cooler heads to prevail on the important issues of how, when and where Americans cast their ballots.

Rock on, Rick – and everyone else stay tuned …

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