In his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama announced the formation of a “nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America.” As a nation, we are “betraying our ideals” when any American is forced to “wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot,” the president said.
In support of his proposed commission, he pointed to the story of Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old Floridian who waited in line for three hours to cast a 2012 presidential ballot. Victor was seated in the House chamber, and after being recognized by the president, she received a rousing ovation from most of the assembled crowd. Few Republicans, however, saw fit to salute her dogged determination and triumph in exercising her right to vote.
Victor's story was certainly moving, touching and inspiring. And the president was right to highlight this centenarian’s difficulties in casting her ballot.
But there are several problems with the president's would-be commission, to wit:
Two federal bipartisan election commissions already exist. The US Election Assistance Commission (EAC) was established in 2002 by the Help America Vote Act. That law charged the commission to find and implement the “best practices” in election administration for all 50 states. It was a response to the 2000 election debacle.
But, the EAC exists in name only. It was to be composed of four commissioners appointed by the president. Yet, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, all four seats have remained empty to this day. Moreover, the two top “government service” (GS) positions on the EAC -- the general counsel and the staff director -- have also gone unfilled.
Yet another “election reform commission” was established in 2005. That one was called the Baker–Carter Commission, headed by former Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) and former President Jimmy Carter. Its findings, however, have been largely ignored, again by both Republican and Democratic presidents, including Obama.
Wendy Weiser is director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. She has said that resuscitating the EAC will restore its only purpose: protecting the right to vote.
“There’s a federal agency that’s actually supposed to be providing administrative support to state elections officials, and funding,” Weiser told The Huffington Post.
So, puzzle me this: Why set up a brand new election commission when the two formed years ago sit idle? They are not idle because there is no work for them to do, but because no president has bothered to staff them.
As to Obama's current proposal, conservatives have trotted out their usual shibboleths. A cardinal rule for them is that voting is always best left to the states. Obama's commission, they fear, will intrude upon their blood oath to uphold and protect “state's rights.”
“I do not support the president’s proposal to appoint yet another national commission to study solutions to the problem of long lines at polling places that seems to be confined to very few states,” Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-Mich.) said in a statement, adding that she is opposed to national mandates.
Hans von Spakovsky, who served in the George W. Bush administration as a Justice Department official and a member of the Federal Election Commission and is now a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, criticized Obama's commission in a blog post. There he minimized any voting problems that occurred on Election Day. He cited something called a US Election Assistance Commission report, for example, which said that the average waiting time nationally for voters in the 2012 election was only 14 minutes.
But for Spakovsky, state’s rights are only secondary. His fear is that “election reform” really means more votes for Democrats.
“Obama’s commission may just be a stalking horse to implement liberals’ latest partisan fantasies of automatic and election day voter registration — so-called reforms that will stifle real improvements and endanger the integrity of our elections,” he wrote.
Likewise, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said in an interview with CNSNews.com that Obama was playing political games.
“When the president talks about voting, he is focused on partisan advantage for the Democratic Party,” Cruz said. “His Justice Department tragically has been the most partisan Justice Department this country has seen. They have repeatedly fought common-sense voter integrity policies like voter ID that serve, as the US Supreme Court has said, to protect and ensure the integrity of our democratic system.”
Many voting rights advocates, however, argue that the president’s proposed commission, though a good idea, simply does not go far enough. It does not address what they deem as a systemic and democracy-killing problem.
“Setting up a commission is not a bold step; it is business as usual,” said Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters. The president could have done much better by pointing to real solutions, like that in legislation already introduced on Capitol Hill to require early voting, set limits on waiting times, provide for portable voter registration and set up secure online voter registration.”
The main problem with Obama's proposed commission is whom Obama has appointed to lead it. It will have two chairmen, one Democrat, one Republican. The Democrat is Obama’s former White House counsel, Bob Bauer. The Republican? Benjamin Ginsberg, a top-tier lawyer for the Republican Party who helped rig the 2000 recount efforts in Florida, which ultimately gave us eight long years of George W. Bush. Ginsberg was also Mitt Romney’s main go-to lawyer during his ill-fated campaign for the presidency.
Why does Obama constantly do this? Surely he knows Ginsberg’s background. The answer is that Obama believes that “bipartisanship” means sitting down with your sworn enemy and somehow “charming” him into not killing you.
Thus, as currently constituted, this commission will do little or nothing to remedy the real problems involved in voting in this nation-state. Instead it will focus on Election Day-tinkering rather than “reform” of the entire election process.