Obama’s Voting Initiative Greeted With Skepticism

Posted February 15, 2013 at 4:52pm

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union pledge to create a nonpartisan commission to “improve the voting experience in America” has triggered reactions from the election-overhaul community that range from guarded optimism to overt disappointment.

Although voting-rights advocates are happy that Obama is trying to address some of the barriers that greeted voters on Election Day, they differ as to whether a presidential commission can play a viable role in the process.

“This should be a critical part of the larger mission of modernizing elections so every eligible citizen can vote and have that vote counted,” Brennan Center for Justice President Michael Waldman said of the proposal in a statement.

“He announced this commission, which we think is a first step, but we need to go from commission to action,” the Advancement Project’s Judith Browne Dianis said at a briefing the morning after the State of the Union.

Perhaps the most terse response came from the League of Women Voters, which after praising Obama on gun control measures, an overhaul of immigration laws and climate change, said it was “surprised and disappointed that the president did not suggest bold action” on voting changes.

“We’re missing an opportunity here for the president to use his very considerable voice to push for reforms now,” League President Elisabeth MacNamara said in an interview. “I think sending this to a commission means we don’t have to talk about it for a while, and we’re just very disappointed that’s the approach he decided to take.”

The commission will be co-chaired by Bob Bauer, a lawyer at Perkins Coie who served as Obama’s White House counsel and chaired his re-election committee, and by Benjamin Ginsberg, a Patton Boggs attorney who advised the campaign of Mitt Romney and served as national counsel to the Bush/Cheney campaigns in 2000 and 2004. Five other commissioners will be appointed.

The commissioners will have six months to “identify practical, common-sense steps that state and local election officials can take to improve the Election Day experience” before making their recommendations, a White House representative confirmed. Ending long lines at polling places and bringing in business leaders with customer service experience will be a focus, according to a fact sheet circulated by the White House.

In the days since the announcement, MacNamara and others have pointed out that the country already has a commission charged with developing best practices for voting. That agency, the Election Assistance Commission, still exists but operates without a single commissioner, executive director or general counsel because of disagreements in Congress over whether it should be equipped or eliminated.

Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University California, Irvine, said that although the two entities may seem similar, they have unique missions and distinct capabilities.

“I think they’re totally different things,” Hasen said. “The Election Assistance Commission is an agency that’s functioning on a continuing basis, while this is meant to be a six-month commission to make recommendations and then push those recommendations forward.”

MacNamara said the problems voters encounter when casting ballots have been identified and that the potential solutions, based on research conducted by the EAC and others, are well-known.

“To say we’re not going to even try to push legislation that is already in Congress  . . .  the only realistic outcome of that is going to be that, once again, we are going to kick this can down the road, as we do every four years,” MacNamara said.

Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware and Barbara Boxer of California and Reps. George Miller of California and John Lewis of Georgia, all Democrats, have already introduced election-related legislative proposals, none of which has picked up bipartisan support.

“It doesn’t look like the Democrats have a dance partner on anything,” Hasen said. As for the commission, he said, “I think we have to wait and see. Its goals are modest. It was clear from the fact sheet  . . .  the commission is going to make proposals that state and local authorities can adopt. The likelihood of that happening I think depends on what those proposals are and how they’re presented.”