Opinion Columns & Blogs

Bill Clinton, Obama and a voting law

If Barack Obama wins the presidency on Tuesday, he'll have two presidents to thank – in part – for the victory: President George W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton.

George Bush's role is pretty clear. With public approval ratings in the dumpster – the lowest of any U.S. president – the current White House occupant opened the door wide for a Democratic successor. Huge missteps in domestic and foreign policy – and the carnage left in the wake – lifted Obama's theme of change into a public mantra that has only swelled higher and higher as the election season progressed.

Bill Clinton's key role, though, may not be what you think.

Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have campaigned strongly for Obama since her ferocious fight for the Democratic Party's nomination ended in disappointment in early summer. The former president has seemed a lot less enthusiastic than Hillary, New York's junior senator, who's been exuberant on the trail stumping for Obama. But on Wednesday Bill Clinton and Obama campaigned together for the first time at a huge joint rally in the crucial swing state of Florida.

That appearance could help Obama in a race that polls show tightening, and might wind up a nail-biter election night. But it's what Bill Clinton did more than a decade ago that's helped put Obama in a position to even win the presidency. On May 20, 1993, President Clinton signed the National Voter Registration Act.

What does the National Voter Registration Act, more commonly known as the Motor Voter Act, have to do with this election? The big spike in voter registrations nationwide this year – and the long lines of citizens taking advantage of early voting – tell the story.

Those increased registrations are largely due to the Motor Voter law, which requires states to make voter registration easier. States must provide uniform registration through drivers' license centers, disability centers, schools, libraries and other places, and through mail-in registration.

The Motor Voter law also has largely enabled same-day or “one-stop” registration and voting. North Carolina adopted same-day registration for the early-voting period last year. Data shows that states with same-day registration and voting average a 10 percent higher voter turnout.

The increase in voter registrations is most pronounced among young people. Researchers predict that the so-called Millennial Generation, those born between 1978 and 2000 who are now of age to vote, will be key this presidential year. According to a recent USA Today/MTV/Gallup Poll, 75 percent of eligible 18- to 29-year-olds are registered to vote. That's a 25 percent increase since 2004, the largest increase in age group voter registration in the last 50 years.

The genesis of this youth voting power goes back to 1992 with the “Rock the Vote” movement. A consortium of entertainers, music industry people, politicians and others began an all-out campaign to get young people civically engaged. That year, Rock the Vote and its partner organizations registered 350,000 young people and helped lead more than 2 million new young voters to the polls. On Election Day, those voters reversed a 20-year cycle of declining participation with a 20 percent boost in youth turnout over the previous presidential election.

Clinton promised during his presidential campaign that if elected he would push through legislation to make voter registration easier. He made good on that pledge the next year with the Motor Voter law. Critics said massive voter fraud would result but it hasn't happened.

Obama is now reaping the fruit of the law. His message of change and unity has been the spark plug for his campaign. But the engine that could power him to the White House has been millions of people registered and voting this election season. The Motor Voter law made that possible.