The most important issue that was left out of the Democratic debate




If you’re a Democrat, last night’s debate was a raging success. Hillary looked presidential; Bernie did Bernie; O’Malley proved that he will be a perfectly serviceable candidate the next time the party goes through a nominating process; and the Republicans took it on the chin.

The candidates went out of their way to discuss issues that were all but absent from the Republican debates — pivoting to discussing climate change and campaign finance reform without even having to be asked by the moderators. They skewered the GOP’s pet scandals of Benghazi, Clinton’s email server and Planned Parenthood. They had substantive back-and-forths about gun violence, Wall Street reform and American intervention abroad. Clinton even had a good answer about her abandoning support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a shameless pander, but a defensible one). They even asked about legalizing recreational marijuana, and Sanders became the first major party presidential candidate to endorse such a measure.

But one issue escaped last night’s otherwise successful debate, which is a shame because it’s one of the most important issues facing American democracy and and the candidates on stage have substantive differences as to how they’d go about addressing it: Voting rights received precisely zero mentions at last night’s debate.

This is particularly odd given how large ballot access looms over the 2016 race. Lawyers affiliated with Hillary Clinton’s campaign have filed lawsuits in a host of swing states challenging the host of their recently-passed voter suppression laws that have been shown to have measurable effects on the outcome of elections. Conversely, a handful of (mostly blue) states have recently moved to expand ballot access by enacting online and/or automatic voter registration. If marijuana deserved a question at last night’s debate due to the flurry of state-level ballot initiatives and legislation dealing with it, then voting rights deserved one, as well.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, screenshot via CNN / YouTube

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, screenshot via CNN / YouTube

After all, rules-of-the-game issues like voting rights and campaign finance are arguably more important than public policy issues like climate change and economic inequality and certainly recreational marijuana in that the latter won’t get solved before the former. The non-voting population is considerably more progressive than the voting population on economic issues. As long as wealthy, conservative interests are able to dominate the electoral process such that money equals speech and one person does not necessarily equal one vote, they will continue to dominate the political process, as well.

What’s more, it’s not like Democratic candidates don’t have aggressive, substantive and different plans as to how to expand ballot access and ensure that every American has an equal right to vote. The candidates all have good and interesting ideas on this issue, and those ideas deserved some airtime. Martin O’Malley, for instance, would start by fixing the gaping hole in our Constitution by adding an affirmative right to vote via amendment. Clinton, for her part, has called for legislation requiring states to provide 20 days of early voting and automatic voter registration. Bernie Sanders is a co-sponsor of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, the bill that would restore and update the Voting Rights Act. He has also called for automatic voter registration, making Election Day a national holiday and universal no-fault absentee voting.

In other words, every major Democratic candidate agrees that ballot access is a major issue, and they each have overlapping-but-not-identical strategies for how to address it. What’s more, given the flurry of state-level activity, there’s plenty to talk about.

So while I don’t have all that many gripes with last night’s debate (CNN’s token demographically-aligned questions notwithstanding), the Party, the moderators and the candidates collectively kept one of the most important issues in the election off the table.

Here’s hoping that gets fixed next month.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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