Why Hillary and the GOP Shouldn’t Talk About Voting Rights

During a speech at Texas Southern University on Thursday, Hillary Clinton voiced her support for a number of reforms and policy changes to make voting easier and to expand voting rights, 3 of which stand out in particular: expanding early voting periods, automatic voter registration for 18-year-olds, and re-establishing a formula for preclearance under the Voting Rights Act.

In response to these proposals and broad criticism of what Clinton calls the Republican Party’s “sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people and young people from one end of our country to the other,” her political opponents were quick to point out that her advocacy for these reforms reflects her own self-interests and the interests of the Democratic Party

However, if a reform protects and/or expands voting rights or truly preserves the integrity of elections, the party that ends up benefiting most from the reform is irrelevant. This is a point that Michael McGough of the LA Times brought up in a recent op-ed.

“Portraying access to the ballot box as a partisan issue arguably undermines the effort to win bipartisan support for the measures Clinton proposed,” McGough writes. “It also could lead some independent voters to shrug cynically over what seems to be a battle between vested interests, not a matter of principle.”

However, there is an important point that even McGough fails to address.

The Republican and Democratic parties have always supported their own interests. The parties may support open primaries, for instance, in one state and not another depending on whether or not they believe it will benefit them at the polls. Both parties will also sue to keep primaries closed or to close “their” primaries if they think it will enhance their control over elections.

By focusing the conversation on which party the reform gives the advantage to, we totally miss the point. Voting rights are about individual voters, not parties. So, as long as the voting rights discussion is framed as “which party does this help,” we miss out on the opportunity to have a more fundamental discussion about our system of representation: can either party be a credible defender of our individual rights, including the right to vote?

Remember, in the 1940s and 50s, the Democratic Party didn’t want African-Americans to vote in their primaries. Before that, the Republican Party didn’t want women voting. Both parties have manipulated electoral districts and election laws for decades to give them a leg-up on the competition, even at the expense of individual voting rights.

As a result, we have a political system that serves the interests of private organizations ahead of the voters and is largely unrepresentative of the electorate as a whole. This is the conversation we are not having right now, and won’t have as long as the issue is reduced to red-versus-blue politics.

We need to change the way we look at electoral reform in the United State, because fixing elections and improving voting rights should be about voters, not parties.

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