President Obama announced plans for a nonpartisan commission to "improve the Election Day experience" in his State of the Union address, a response to the long lines and heavy burdens that states imposed on voters during the 2012 elections. But his proposal -- which some have called "the policy equivalent of a sock drawer" -- falls short of what many had hoped.
The president certainly got the rhetoric right.
"We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home," Obama said. "That includes our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote."
He referred to Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old Haitian immigrant who became a citizen in 2005 and waited three hours to cast her ballot in Miami. She watched the address from the First Lady's viewing box. More than 200,000 people didn't vote in Florida because of long lines, which resulted in wait times as long as seven hours.
"When any Americans, no matter where they live or what their party, are denied that right simply because they can't wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals."
But the solution -- an election commission -- left much to be desired. As Charles Pierce notes at Esquire, "A bipartisan commission is the Washington policy equivalent of a sock drawer:" where ideas are shoved away and ignored. A similar-sounding federal agency was formed after the voting problems highlighted in the 2000 elections and Bush v Gore debacle, but all four commissioner spots are vacant and it hasn't had an executive director since 2011, largely because of Republican obstructionism. A bill to kill the agency passed the Republican-controlled House in 2011.
Weak Commission Leaves Much to be Desired
Elections are administered by the states, which has resulted in a patchwork of outdated, paper-based election systems, as well as partisan application of voting registration and early voting procedures (which vary state-to-state), and new laws that make it harder for disfavored populations to access the ballot box, such as strict voter ID restrictions advanced by the American Legislative Exchange Council. Along with partisanship, outdated election administration is rife with malfeasance or incompetence -- like when Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus flipped the results of the Wisconsin Supreme Court race in 2011 after she insisted on keeping vote tallies on a personal laptop and said she forgot to include an entire city in the initial count submitted to the state and press.
Groups like the Brennan Center for Justice have called for federal legislation and national standards to limit some of the problems experienced in recent elections. Its proposal would enact a computerized national voting registration system (which, incidentally, would reduce opportunities for the in-person "fraud" that Republicans espouse), mandatory early voting, and minimum standards for polling places. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) has proposed legislation to require same day legislation across the country and prohibit voter ID laws, and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has introduced a bill that would task the Attorney General with creating minimum national standards to prevent wait times of more than one hour, both of which would advance the ball much farther than a bipartisan commission.
The president's commission is tasked with much more modest goals. According to the Executive Order creating the commission, it will "identify practical, commonsense steps that state and local election officials can take to improve the Election Day experience. The Commission will also identify the practices of voting jurisdictions where voters have the best Election Day experience."
Identifying best practices is important but it won't change many of the problems with state-run elections. The Pew Charitable Trusts just released an election performance index along these lines, and ranked Wisconsin as one of the highest-performing states in the nation during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles. This is in large part because the state is one of nine that allows voters to register at the polls on election day. But as the Center for Media and Democracy recently outlined in its report Rig the Vote, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos have both voiced support for ending the highly successful election day registration program, despite it being nationally recognized as helping the state achieve the second-highest voter turnout rate in the nation.
Voting rights advocates recognize that an Election Commission is not enough. Although the Brennan Center urged the Commission to think "boldly," it called on "Congress to do its part by enacting minimum national standards to modernize elections." The League of Women Voters was less conciliatory, stating in a release that "Setting up a commission is not a bold step; it is business as usual."
Republican Lawyer Co-Chair Is a "Puzzling" Choice
The makeup of the Commission itself has led others to question its efficacy. It will be chaired by Bob Bauer, the top attorney for Obama's campaign, and Ben Ginsberg, former election lawyer for Mitt Romney's 2012 operation.
But Ari Berman at The Nation explained why Ginsberg is a "puzzling" choice. He writes:
For over two decades, Ginsberg has been a top lawyer for the Republican Party -- the same party, you may recall, that has led the effort to restrict voting rights of late. Ginsberg helped lead the 2000 recall effort for George W. Bush. He was forced to resign from the Bush campaign in 2004 after it was revealed that he was also advising the vile Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In 2006, Ginsberg said, "just like really with the Voting Rights Act, Republicans have some fundamental philosophical difficulties with the whole notion of Equal Protection." And in 2012, he was counsel to the Romney campaign when it absurdly claimed that the Obama campaign was trying to suppress military voters by pushing for early voting for all Ohioans. Does that sound like the kind of guy you want leading a "non-partisan" voting commission?
With the Voting Rights Act being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court and a variety of proposals to make it harder to vote (and change how electoral votes are counted) being considered in the states, a bipartisan commission is certainly not enough.
Many are hoping that, beyond this commission idea, Obama will truly follow through on his State of the Union promise that "We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy."