One year ago, in his State of the Union address, President Obama decried the long lines that marred the 2012 election. Winding up for a major proposal, he announced the creation of … a commission. Sigh. Everyone knows that in Washington, when you want an issue to go away, convene a panel. That’s where ideas go to die.
This week we got a surprise: this commission may well have been worth the effort. Comprised of hard-charging partisan election lawyers from both major parties, and corporate experts on efficiency and consumer satisfaction, the panel released its recommendations Wednesday. They set out a strong set of “best practices” to modernize and improve the ramshackle way our democracy runs elections. The panel’s work offers the best chance in ages to burst past the partisan stalemate on voting issues.
Few topics have been as enmeshed in hyperpartisanship. Over the past four years, Republicans in state capitols have pressed to enact two dozen laws that cumulatively would have made it harder for millions to vote. The worst were blocked by courts—federal, state, GOP-appointed, Democrat-appointed. In June of last year, the most partisan court in the country, the Supreme Court, weighed in, gutting the Voting Rights Act. Democrats shouted “voter suppression;” Republicans warned of “fraud.”
Meanwhile, as we saw in 2012, even when the worst voting laws were frozen by courts, far too many citizens found themselves up against the creaky electoral machinery. In Florida and other states, voters had to wait in line for hours to cast a ballot. Changes in early voting rules made it worse. At last year’s address to Congress, President Obama highlighted the story of a 102-year-old woman who waited three hours to cast her ballot.
The panel’s recommendations are a significant first step to solve the problem, and one reason the commission’s words will carry weight is the pedigree of its chairmen. Bob Bauer, a former White House counsel, was the Obama campaign’s lawyer in both election cycles. Ben Ginsberg is the top Republican election lawyer, well known for his role in the 2000 Florida recount. (Bob Balaban played him in the HBO movie.) He was Mitt Romney’s top lawyer. No RINOs or DINOs here.
The commissioners looked at the electoral mess, and concluded that strong steps should be taken to avoid further fiascos. They start by recognizing that the underlying cause of Election Day chaos is our antiquated, paper-based voter registration system. In the age of smartphones and tablets, most Americans still register to vote using ink-and-paper form. Illegible handwriting and typos lead to errors and duplicate entries. These voter roll problems create havoc on Election Day. The panel embraced some of the innovations now flowering in states, including online registration and electronically transferring data from the Department of Motor Vehicles to statewide voter lists. These are among the steps needed to truly modernize the system.
The panel also addressed some more divisive topics. Take early voting, which is wildly popular and which eases long lines on Election Day itself. In 2012, some states, including Florida, cut back on early voting, with predictably unsettling results. The panel declared that early voting should be available to all citizens. This implicitly rebukes North Carolina as it moves to cut back on early balloting as part of its wildly controversial plan. (Not to mention illegal, and unconstitutional, in my view.) The commissioners also declared that no voter should have to wait more than a half hour. That will now be a powerful national benchmark.
The panel left some things out. It did not embrace all the most effective reforms to modernize voter registration, a step that would protect against fraud while registering millions. And the commissioners wisely left untouched the most contentious issues, such as voter identification laws. Still, in all, it could be a breakthrough package.
Such reforms could easily gather dust, lodged on the shelf in between the last “how to reform entitlements” and “the need for infrastructure spending” commissions. So it’s up to state governments, especially, to take the cue and implement reforms.
In fact, despite the harsh fights over voting laws, many states have quietly moved to expand voter registration and modernize electoral systems. In 2013, more states passed laws to improve voting than to restrict it. Now governors and legislators should embrace the Bauer-Ginsburg package of changes. Already, a mobilized citizen movement to advance voting reform is ready to push. States with the best chance for action include Massachusetts and Connecticut.
And the report makes clear by implication that voting is a national concern. Minimum national standards are essential. And that means, in the end, national legislation to ensure that states take responsibility to expand voting access and modernize elections. Congress—yes, that dysfunctional branch of government—can make it happen. None other than Justice Antonin Scalia says its true.
In June, the Supreme Court made clear that Congress has a strong role to play in regulating federal elections. The opinion, written by Justice Scalia, invalidated an Arizona law making it harder to register.
A bill already exists to modernize elections on a national scale. Civil rights hero John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced the Voter Empowerment Act last year. It’s full of ideas both Republicans and Democrats can get behind. Many of the commission’s recommendations, in fact, mirror the legislative proposal.
That’s something both parties can agree on—and they have. With little fanfare and partisan wrangling, 43 states have already adopted key elements of voter registration modernization. A national standard would energize reform across the country.
To be sure, modernizing registration alone will not eliminate long voting lines. But combined with the voting commission’s ideas, we can fix the problems that led to them in the first place.
So let’s give two and a half cheers for the commission’s proposals. When Republicans and Democrats agree on key voting reforms, in an election year, that’s a rare sign of hope.