Nuts and Bolts

01.23.14

Commission Wants to Make Voting More Like Disneyland and Less Like the DMV

A new report from a presidential commission on how to conduct elections avoided political hot potatoes and focused instead on how to make voting quick and efficient.

If a presidential commission has its way, the traditional Election Day is dead.

The “traditional election day model 12 hours from x in morning to x at night is not feasible,” Bob Bauer, one of two co-chairs of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, said in a panel at George Washington University School of Law on Wednesday, just hours after presenting the commission’s report to President Obama.

The commission--popularly known as the Bauer-Ginsberg Commission after its two chairs, Bauer, a top Democratic lawyer, and Ben Ginsberg, the leading Republican election litigator—delivered its recommendations unanimously in a report commissioned in the aftermath of numerous reports of long lines and delays during the 2012 election.

The commission dodged issues normally associated with partisan battles, such as voter ID and the Voting Rights Act. Instead it focused on the nuts and bolts of how to get voters in and out of their polling places quickly and efficiently, setting a standard of a half-hour as the longest anyone should wait to vote.

While the report did urge all states to adopt early voting--an issue which has been a partisan flashpoint in recent years--it made no recommendation as to how this should be done, save that it should. This avoided a debate over how early voting should be conducted, which has become deeply politicized. Republicans push for mail-in absentee ballots, a method they believe gives the GOP an advantage, while Democrats advocate in person early voting, which they believe favors them.

A technocratic tone defines the entire report, which uses the phrase “industrial engineering” twice as often as “Voting Rights Act”--one of the ten commission members is the Disney executive in charge of making sure tourists don’t spend too long waiting to get on Space Mountain. It also pushes online voter registration, simply because it is far cheaper and far more efficient than the traditional method of voters filling out paper forms from which clerks then manually enter data.

The entire report was filled with this sort of wonkery. It urged that ballots should be useability tested to avoid confusion like Florida’s infamous “butterfly ballot” of 2000, that poll workers receive thorough training, and that polling place locations should be carefully planned and organized to maximize the flow of voters. The goal seemed to be making the experience of casting a ballot less like a visit to the DMV and more like a visit to the Apple Store.

The commission didn’t just compile recommendations. It also built a “tool kit” to be used by election administrators in any of the more than 8,000 jurisdictions that oversee elections in the United States. The tools are simply handy widgets to calculate expected lines and what equipment might be needed in a given precinct.

One of the commission members is the Disney executive in charge of making sure tourists don’t spend too long waiting to get on Space Mountain.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Nate Persily, the senior research director for the commission and a professor at Stanford Law School, emphasized that the panel didn’t deliberately try to focus conclusions that would receive unanimous support.  “It turned out that way,” he said. As Persily pointed out, Bauer and Ginsberg were “partisan lawyers who are normally on opposite sides of these questions.” But instead of waging political combat, they “based the decisions on what [the commission] heard from election administrators, political scientists and the public.”

But all was not bipartisan sunshine in the commission’s report. It contained an urgent warning that most of the voting machines in the United States are nearing the end of their working life. These machines were bought ten years ago with money allocated under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which was passed by Congress in the aftermath of the Florida recount. The bill allocated billions of dollars for local jurisdictions to buy new machines. This equipment, much of it using dated computer technology, is starting to wear out, and no infusion of federal funds seems forthcoming. The result is a potential crisis as polling places have to serve more and more voters with a dwindling number of voting machines. While the commission suggested that off-the-shelf technology like iPads might work in place of specialized voting machines, it made no mention of the touchy issue of where any money for replacements might come from.

The commission has no power to see its recommendations enacted. None are even applicable at a federal level; all of the steps suggested are up to state and local governments to enact. They aren’t particularly sexy either. As noted Yale Law professor Heather Gerken points out, they are “low-key, deeply pragmatic, easily implemented, and assiduously nonpartisan proposals.” But that might be to the commission’s advantage. After all, in an era when politics can seem increasingly cartoonish, at least it would be a significant improvement if our elections were run more like Disney World.