Some Democrats Stay Quiet on Voting Reforms

Obsession with Citizens United is diverting the party's candidates from more urgent goals.

It seems so easy.

Photographer: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Remember how some Democrats were making a big deal about voting reforms earlier this year? They promised that if they won they would push for automatic voter registration, voting for ex-felons and better administration of elections.

The good news for advocates of making voting easier is that the Democratic national platform wound up having a strong plank supporting reform. And Hillary Clinton has spoken out on the topic.

But other Democratic candidates appear to be less enthusiastic.

I’ve concluded this by looking at candidate websites to determine which topics they find important. 1 Of the 13 candidates most likely to become new Democratic senators in 2017, only four mention voting topics at all in the issue sections of their sites. And only Patrick Murphy in Florida and Kamala Harris in California offer extensive lists of proposals, going beyond the usual opposition to voter ID requirements and support for giving former felons the right to cast ballots. The others? Nothing.

I also looked at the seven candidates most likely to be new Democratic governors (since voting is administered by states). Only two of them mentioned voting reform on their websites. John Gregg in Indiana took a strong position, including support for automatic voter registration. Roy Cooper in North Carolina, where Republican efforts to make voting more difficult have sparked controversy, is the only other Democratic nominee who highlights the issues. 

What Democrats talk a lot about is the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which loosened rules on campaign finance. Eight of the 13 Senate candidates mention campaign-finance reform; seven of them specifically complain about Citizens United and most want to get it reversed.  

Even if you agree that campaign finance is more important than voting reform -- and I don’t -- it’s discouraging to see these politicians focusing on something they can’t do anything about instead of suggesting solid steps on electoral reform that Congress could actually take. 2  If we’re talking about improbable constitutional amendments -- a cause of the anti-Citizens United crusade -- none of these candidates has endorsed the idea of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote.

Why am I taking the content of politicians’ websites so seriously? Candidates try to keep campaign promises, and they’re most likely to make high priorities of the vows they paid the most attention to in their campaigns. The lack of visibility for voting-reform policies is disappointing, given that their advocates had gotten the national Democratic Party to adopt their strong agenda for action, as opposed to just attacking the Republican “war on voting” efforts.

Yes, outrage over big money in politics gets the party’s base revved up. But it’d be more effective if the Democratic candidates could rouse the base on something they actually had control over. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. I looked at Democratic nominees in states with a retiring Democratic senator and in competitive seats currently held by a Republican. I eliminated one candidate who did not have an issues section on her website.

  2. Senators, of course, can affect future Supreme Court decisions through their choices in the nomination and confirmation process. But a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United is unrealistic. Saying they will oppose that decision without offering any other specific suggestions is an empty promise.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at

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