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Voting Reform is a Presidential Priority, But What Does That Really Mean?

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, February 14 2013

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama highlighted the case of Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old Florida woman who waited hours before she was able to cast her vote, to advance the cause of reforms to America's elections.

He even announced a bipartisan commission to examine voting reforms, chaired by Bob Bauer, who served as general counsel for the president's campaign, and Ben Ginsberg, who served as national counsel for the Romney campaign. And Election Day reform is already on the agenda in Congress, where far-reaching legislation that would set standards for Internet voting, quality of voter data, and privacy for registered voters, is stalled in Congress.

Progress so far has not inspired many to believe major change is on the horizon. But a cause that technologists have championed for years — make voting easy — is now also a priority for the White House. TurboVote, a website built to help people register to vote, calls itself a "Netflix" for voting. Now the White House is talking as if it's looking to make that type of approach a federal standard.

The Obama commission will address obstacles to efficient voting and improve the experience of voting, according to the White House. In addition to focusing on the "long lines" problem Obama has identified in his election night and inaugural speeches, the commission also has a "customer service" focus.

"Its membership will draw from business community leaders in the area of customer service, as well as professional election officials known for their successful administration of elections," a White House fact sheet says.

House and Senate Democrats recently reintroduced legislation that outlines many measures that might fit this bill. The Voter Empowerment Act, H.R. 12, includes recommendations related to Internet registration and the ability to update information online; the option to receive voter information by email; automatic voter registration; promoting the accuracy of statewide voter registration lists; annual reports on voter registration statistics; prohibiting use of uncertified voting system technologies; restricting the use of wireless communications devices in voting systems and restricting their access to the Internet; security standards; and new grants for research on development of voting system software.

It's a big bill packed with a lot of 21st-century ideas. It just doesn't stand much chance of passing.

In the House, the Voter Empowerment Act has been referred to six committees, including the House Administration Committee, which has lead jurisdiction, and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, among others. A corresponding bill in the Senate has been referred to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. Govtrack calculates that the House bill has only a one percent chance of escaping committee.

Brenda Jones, spokesperson for lead bill sponsor Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), said the bill had been a topic of discussion at a recent Democratic Caucus retreat. But she emphasized that it was the House Majority, led by Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who set the agenda.

And House Republicans don't seem inclined to follow along with the far-reaching bill.

"As former Michigan Secretary of State, I am keenly aware of the adverse consequences federal mandates can have on a state’s ability to successfully administer elections," said
Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), chair of the Administration Committee, in an emailed statement. "There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Therefore, forced changes to state election procedures, especially the sweeping changes proposed in this legislation, are of particular concern.”

Miller also released a statement today opposing the the establishment of the commission, emphasizing that the administration of elections is a state issue.

Election Law blogger Rick Hasen, professor of Law and Political Science at UC Irvine, says Obama's commission has a better chance of making at least a fairly modest impact.

"Getting buy-in not just from the president and Democrats but from a leading Republican election lawyer such as Ginsberg is quite significant," he wrote.

"Ginsberg is an adult who has never bought into the hyperbolic rhetoric by some on the Republican side about an epidemic of voter fraud requiring all kinds of steps to make it harder to vote ... Ginsberg is a strong conservative, very smart, and not likely to give away the store to Democrats."

With Ginsberg onboard, it's more likely that other Republicans will join in, too, Hasen writes.

But he also writes that it is possible the commission will only focus on establishing best practices, echoing work Pew did when it launched its Pew Election Performance Index earlier this year. The Index tracks the experience of voting across all 50 states and ranks them on several criteria, such as wait time and the number of provisional ballots cast.

"We’ve had Carter-Ford and Carter-Baker. A blue-ribbon commission report might simply gather dust in the corner of the 13,000 election jurisdictions in this country charged with running our elections," Hasen writes.

Voting advocacy groups also has mixed reactions to the announcement. The Brennan Center for Justice, which recently released its own report on voting recommendations, said it was an important step.

But the League of Women Voters said it wouldn't be enough.

The League was "surprised and disappointed," it said in a statement:

... the President did not suggest bold action to ensure that every American citizen can exercise the right to vote. Setting up a commission is not a bold step; it is business as usual. 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.