Democrats allied with Hillary Clinton are mounting a nationwide legal battle 17 months before the 2016 presidential election, seeking to roll back Republican-enacted restrictions on voter access that Democrats say could, if unchallenged, prove decisive in a close campaign.
The court fights began last month with lawsuits filed in Ohio and Wisconsin, presidential battleground states whose governors are likely to run for the Republican nomination. Now, Democrats are attacking a host of measures, including voter identification requirements that they consider onerous, time restrictions imposed on early voting that they say could make it difficult to cast ballots the weekend before Election Day, and rules that could nullify ballots cast in the wrong precinct.
The effort, which is being led by a lawyer whose clients include Clinton’s campaign, reflects an urgent practical need, Democrats say: to get litigation underway early enough so federal judges can be persuaded to intervene in states where Republicans control legislatures and governor’s offices. But Republicans dismiss it as little more than a publicity gambit to energize minority voters in support of Democratic candidates.
A similar lawsuit was begun last year in North Carolina. Other potential fronts in the pre-emptive legal offensive, Democrats say, could soon be opened in Georgia, Nevada and the increasingly critical presidential proving ground of Virginia.
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Almost all of those states have growing African-American or Hispanic populations, groups crucial to President Barack Obama in 2012 but whose voting rights Democrats say could be impinged next year, damaging the party’s prospects.
Democrats seeking office at every level in 2016 could gain if lawsuits in their states are successful. But Clinton, who has a wide lead in public polls, is certain to benefit if she is the party’s nominee.
On Thursday, Clinton will tackle the issue of voter access head-on at Texas Southern University, a historically black college in Houston, in a speech that will tie voting rights to broader civil rights issues. She is expected to condemn the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling striking down an important provision of the Voting Rights Act, which opened the way for states to pass laws requiring voters to present government-issued photo identification at the polls, and call on Congress to re-enact parts of the law.
Clinton is also expected to single out laws in Texas and in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin, which voting-rights groups say limit participation, especially among minorities, the poor and younger voters who disproportionately cast their ballots for Democrats.
And she will criticize her potential Republican rivals, including Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and former governors Jeb Bush of Florida and Rick Perry of Texas, whose states have enacted laws that put more requirements on voters. She will also propose a nationwide early-voting standard of at least 20 days before an election, call for an increase in online voter registration and restate her position that felons should have their voting rights restored.
For Clinton, such speeches can do much to reinforce her liberal credentials while reassuring black voters who supported Obama that she is on their side.
In the same way, even if the lawsuits are unsuccessful, Democratic strategists say, they serve an important political purpose for Democrats by highlighting Republicans’ responsibility for the statutes being challenged. Democrats will also remind the party’s base that Republicans have tried to mobilize their own core voters by warning, as Mitt Romney did in 2012, against the possibility of widespread voter fraud by Democrats.
Democrats acknowledge the political value of the lawsuits. Clinton badly needs to turn out minority voters in numbers similar to those Obama drew in his 2012 re-election.
“I think it has been a growing trend in the last 10 years for campaigns to use litigation like this as a campaign weapon,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a Republican election law expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “The claims that they keep making, that this is going to depress turnout, just keep proving to be not true, and many of these issues have already been litigated.”
According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, there are 14 states with new voter laws in place for the first time in a national race.
The lawsuits filed in Ohio and Wisconsin, like the 2014 North Carolina case, were brought by Marc Elias, a leading Democratic lawyer on voter protection issues who represents four of the party’s national campaign committees.
Elias is also the general counsel for Clinton’s campaign, and her aides have spoken favorably of the lawsuits.
The lawsuits are typically filed on behalf of people who say they have been, or could be, disenfranchised. In the Ohio case, a black pastor is among the plaintiffs.
Clinton’s campaign is not a party to the lawsuits, although her aides have said her team supports them. People involved in the actions have refused to say who was paying for them.
But Elias suggested that the litigation was simply common sense. “We should all want to ensure that all eligible voters can exercise their right to vote and have their vote counted,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that some Republicans see a benefit in making it harder for people to vote.”
Since the election fight in 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore, court battles have become a routine and increasingly strategic component of presidential campaigns. The new round of lawsuits is occurring relatively early and is a more preventive effort than in past election cycles, experts say.
More broadly, the legal campaign is shaping up as something of a delayed Democratic response to the Republican takeovers of a number of governorships and legislatures in the same states after the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009 and 2010, as well as to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
As a result of both changes, a series of stringent state laws were enacted in some of those states that Democrats say are intended to curtail voting by important segments of Obama’s political coalition, African-American and younger voters in particular.
Republicans have used such laws for mobilization purposes of their own, denouncing voter fraud as they appeal to an increasingly conservative party base. Walker, for example, has repeatedly boasted to Republicans across the country about having enacted tougher voting laws in Wisconsin.
“Any measure that protects our democracy by making it easier to vote and harder to cheat is a step in the right direction,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for Walker. “This is a bipartisan issue, and Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are on the wrong side.”
Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, called the Democratic lawsuits “long shots,” saying that so-called voter protection lawsuits had often failed in the courts. “In terms of success, some of these things are a stretch,” he said.