Bashing GOP, Clinton calls for automatic voter registration

Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonRepublicans to release Benghazi report Tuesday Sanders's Nevada director floated two-sided coins for tiebreaks: report Benghazi Blues MORE on Thursday blasted potential Republican rivals for the voting requirements in their states as she proposed a series of policies meant to expand access to the polls

The Democratic presidential candidate called for ensuring at least 20 days of early voting across the country, restoring key pieces of the Voting Rights Act and instituting automatic voter registration.

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"Today Republicans are systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of citizens from voting," she said during a speech at Texas Southern University in Houston.

"I call on Republicans at all levels of government, with all manner of ambition to stop fear-mongering about a phantom epidemic of election fraud and start explaining why they are so scared of letting citizens have their say."

Clinton went after former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush by name, accusing the Republican presidential hopefuls of taking part in “a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise" minorities, young people and the poor.

She also condemned the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to quash a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, which forced certain states with a history of discriminatory election laws to pre-clear their changes with the federal government. That, she argues, has allowed localities to pass more restrictive voting laws without oversight.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has pushed for new legislation to address that decision. But Republican leaders in Congress have said action is unnecessary because the current structure provides ample protections for voting rights violations.

Clinton suggested Republicans intended to keep voters away from the polls. She said it was a "cruel irony, but no coincidence" that young voters "are now facing so much exclusion."

She said that automatic voter registration across the country, except for those who opt out, would have a “profound impact on our elections, on our democracy,” while panning the current system as a “relic.”

Critics hit back, pointing to the lack of early voting in Clinton's adopted home state of New York, one of 14 states without the option, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric is misleading and divisive. In reality, the vast majority of Americans — including minority voters — support commonsense measures to prevent voter fraud," said Orlando Watson, a Republican National Committee spokesman focused on black media, in a statement.

Proponents of the recently enacted state laws, who argue they put more power in local jurisdictions over the federal government, also pushed back against the idea of automatic voter registration.

“Clinton’s embrace of mandatory or ‘universal’ voter registration may sound above reproach, but the actual means to accomplish such a policy would risk substantial voter dilution for citizens," said Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of the Houston-based conservative group True the Vote.

Clinton made her remarks at Texas Southern University, a historically black university in Houston, where she received an inaugural award named after former Rep. Barbara Jordan, the first black woman elected to the House from the Deep South.

During her Senate tenure and her 2008 presidential campaign, Clinton pushed to make Election Day a national holiday and called for other measures allowing easier access at polls, especially for minorities.

At the time, she said some voter ID requirements amounted to a "modern day poll tax." More requirements on voters have been implemented since then, which she panned in her remarks.

Clinton, who announced her White House bid in April and will hold her first rally June 13, has made a push for issues seen as impacting those in minority communities as Democrats look to hold together the coalition that helped elect President Obama in 2008.

In April, she outlined her vision for criminal justice reform, along with a call for all police to have body cameras, an issue that drew massive attention following high-profile cases of police-involved deaths of black men.

One key for Clinton in the 2016 race will be getting Democrats to show up at the polls. High turnout among minorities, and African Americans in particular, helped put Obama over the top in a number of battleground states in 2008 and 2012.

Lawyers allied with Clinton and national Democrats have also filed lawsuits in battleground states of Ohio and Wisconsin challenging voting laws that they say are too restrictive.

During her speech, Clinton evoked example of voting hurdles, students being unable to use their IDs to vote, grandmothers being turned away from polls because of expired driver's licenses and fathers released from prison unable to vote.

After she spoke, a student played "How Great is Our God" on the viola while Clinton bobbed her head. 

This story was last updated at 6 p.m.

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