Beto O’Rourke unveils plan to get 35 million more voters to the polls

By Tim Reid

(Reuters) – Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke issued an ambitious plan on Wednesday to revamp the U.S. voting system by cracking down on voter suppression and getting an additional 35 million people to the ballot box by the 2024 elections.

O’Rourke, a former congressman from Texas, a state with tough voter ID laws that critics say disproportionately affect the ability of minorities to vote, said his proposal would also allow the registration of an additional 50 million U.S. voters.

O’Rourke’s plan comes as many in the huge field of 24 Democratic candidates vying to take on Republican President Donald Trump in next year’s election are embracing voting rights as an issue.

They say Republican leaders in states such as Georgia have been purging voter rolls and passing laws that suppress voter turnout, particularly among people of color, something Republicans deny. They say their laws are designed to stop voter fraud. Voting rights advocates say the number of documented cases of voter fraud in the United States is extremely small.

A key part of O’Rourke’s plan would be to set term limits for politicians, to give young people incentive to vote for new and fresher candidates. He proposes limiting membership of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate to 12 years, and requiring Supreme Court justices – currently appointed for life – to step down after 18 years.

Those moves would require a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate and ratification by three-quarters of state legislatures.

O’Rourke, 46, said as president he would spearhead a nationwide effort to allow voters in every state to register on election day, and to make registration automatic every time a citizen does business with a government office, such as getting a driver’s license.

O’Rourke says that by combining the two measures in all 50 states, at least 50 million more voters would be registered. He also wants to make U.S. voting day a national holiday, making it easier for people to get to the polls, expand voting by mail, extend early voting and place polling stations in easily accessible, “iconic” locations.

O’Rourke rose to national prominence last year when he narrowly lost his bid to defeat Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. He has struggled to gain traction in opinion polls since he launched his presidential bid in March, with his national support among likely Democratic primary voters around 4 percent.

O’Rourke’s goal is to raise national voter turnout to 65 percent by 2024. Only just over half of voting-aged citizens, around 55 percent, voted in 2016.

“The only way to make progress is if every single American is empowered to vote – and those who have historically been drawn out of our democracy are able to make their voices heard so that this country can live up to its full promise and potential,” O’Rourke said in a statement.

O’Rourke said he would also work with Congress to crack down on voter ID laws, which he said “reduce turnout, period.” He added he would also strengthen voter protection by amending the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

(Reporting by Tim Reid in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney)