Voting Isn’t Everything

09.02.13

Obama Electoral Commission Omission: Our Voting System Needs Real Reform

We all want voting to be more efficient and less time consuming. But these upgrades won’t change what our electoral system produces—a government paralyzed by partisan gridlock.

Our democracy is in disrepair. The Supreme Court recently crippled the pre-clearance remedy of the Voting Rights Act. Efforts are underway in a number of states, north and south, to limit voting by imposing stringent identification standards. The 40 percent of Americans who are independents are barred from participating in primary elections in most states, unless one of the major parties invites them. Our rigged system of redistricting is manifestly partisan. There is unprecedented gridlock in Washington and alarming levels of corruption in State legislatures.

This sorry state of affairs has not gone entirely unnoticed. Recently, President Obama appointed a Presidential Commission on Election Administration, in response to breakdown and conflict in the electoral arena. Its mandate is to “promote the efficient administration of elections,” an understatement of the problem if there ever was one.

Unfortunately, the Commission appears to be the usual status quo defending effort, bipartisan by Washington standards. It’s led by co-chairs Robert F. Bauer, general counsel to the Democratic National Committee, and Benjamin L. Ginsberg, who served as national counsel to the Romney presidential campaign and is now counsel to the Republican Governors Association. The gap between the magnitude of the problem and the narrowness of the Commission’s mandate is ridiculously wide, like opening an umbrella in the middle of a hurricane. This fact has drawn comments by a range of democracy reform advocates in the context of the Commission’s poorly attended hearings. Common Cause wrote to the Commission that:

“The problems we saw on Election Day presented as long lines, inadequate poll worker trainings, and too few options to cast a ballot. But it is what is underneath these problems that should be the focus of our reform. The root cause of the problems we saw were antiquated voter registration systems, under-resourced election offices, and restrictive voting laws and deceptive practices targeted at minimizing participation by specific populations.” 

At the Denver hearing, Wendy Underhill, senior policy specialist of the National Conference of State Legislators, raised the voter identification issue in the most diplomatic way, even though it’s a controversy that has embroiled the parties, the courts, and millions of voters. “While this topic is not in your executive order, it might still be of interest to you.” 

Catana L. Barnes, Independent Voters of Nevada president, described how independents are excluded from voting in primary elections and reminded the Commission that it was created to improve the experience of all voters. She quoted President Obama’s instruction on the right to vote:

“When any American, no matter where they live or what their party, are (sic) denied that right…we are betraying our ideals…”

At the Commission’s hearing in Miami on June 28, the Florida ACLU executive director, Howard Simon, stated:

“Too often the rights of voters are lost in a tug of war between the major political parties jousting for perceived partisan advantage by manipulating election laws. This discussion should not take place with blinders.”

Americans are not simply waiting on long lines. They are waiting for the government to do its job.

Long lines, antiquated equipment, and poorly trained poll workers surely make for a less than positive experience at the polls. We all want voting to be more efficient and less time consuming. But these upgrades, however necessary, will not change what our electoral system produces—a government paralyzed by partisan gridlock. Americans are not simply waiting on long lines. They are waiting for the government to do its job.

Outside the Beltway and outside the Commission’s hearings, Americans are taking some matters into their own hands. In the Aug. 26 issue of The Atlantic, Ron Fournier reports that while significant numbers of Americans born between 1982 and 2003 participate in community service, “They don’t see politics or government as a way to improve their communities, their country, or the world.” Forty-five percent of these “millennials” call themselves independents, rather than Republicans or Democrats. In California, independents joined with reform-oriented rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans, voting to replace party primaries with a “top-two” system—in effect a public primary in which the power of the voters, rather than party incumbency, is enhanced. In 2012, the first full year of its operation, eight incumbents were defeated, as compared with only one in the previous five election cycles combined.

In South Carolina, a coalition of independents and African-American legislators won dismissal of a lawsuit brought by right-wing Republicans in Greenville County who were seeking to close the primaries, exclude independents, and marginalize black voters. California recently adopted a nonpartisan redistricting process, also by referendum. Fair Vote is seeking passage of a constitutional amendment explicitly recognizing, for the first time, the right to vote. The Brennan Center advocates removing legal barriers that prevent persons convicted of a crime from voting even after they have served their time.

There is no small fix that can improve the electoral process. Instead, there is a deep need to fundamentally reform the political process by opening it to all voters. The president and the Commission should rework the Commission’s official mandate, expand its membership to be more diverse, and explore the deeper problems at hand.

(Harry Kresky acted as counsel for the coalition in the South Carolina litigation referenced in this article.)