A step toward better elections

In 2012, after an election marred by long voting lines and registration snafus, President Obama mentioned in passing during his victory speech that maybe we should do something about those problems. Now the bipartisan voting reform panel that he subsequently created has released a lengthy report offering a range of recommended solutions.

Its prescriptions are very likely to please voting reformers, though they probably will cite areas where the panel could have gone farther. The key recommendations are improved voter registration through online registration and interstate exchange of voter lists, to ensure accuracy and speed the process; expansion of early voting; and improved voting technology.

One of the most important things about the report is that it unabashedly identifies our voting difficulties as a national problem that requires a national solution. “We view the recommendations as broad-based solutions to common problems evident on a national scale,” the report says. “The recommendations in this report are targeted at common problems shared by all or most jurisdictions. For the most part, they are of a size that should fit all.”

The report does discuss some regional variations, but this is a clear declaration of the scope of the problem, and the required scope of the solution. Indeed, the report recommends the creation of a national standard: “no citizen should have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote.”

“Some had eschewed national solutions, or any kinds of efforts to fix these problems, by suggesting they’re so particular and local that they can’t be solved with national policy,” Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, tells me. “This sets a national standard for judging our election performance against. Here is a bipartisan group with strong credibility from both parties, strongly putting their thumb on the scale for national solutions.”

Those in the group include the leading elections lawyers from the 2012 Obama and Romney campaigns, Bob Bauer and Benjamin Ginsberg.

The report prioritizes improving the experience of the voter — or, put another way, the experience of all voters — as a top goal. The question now is, Do both parties want to achieve this?

After all, in setting that as its goal, the report ends up embracing some Democratic solutions. As Jeffrey Toobin points out, early voting and improved voter registration are both top Democratic goals.

The debate over voting reform should be able to get past the partisan arguments we’ve been hearing on the topic. This report’s identification of national problems — and its recommended solutions — go far beyond many of the disputes we’ve been seeing over voter ID. As such, it poses a challenge to Republicans, as Toobin concludes:

The recommendations will test Republicans. If, as many Democrats believe, they simply want to reduce turnout because they have a tendency to win low-turnout elections and lose high-turnout contests, Republicans can ignore or nitpick the recommendations, despite Ginsberg’s impeccable partisan credentials. (I first met both Ginsberg and Bauer when they were on opposite sides of the Florida recount, in 2000.) Or the commission’s work could serve as a model of bipartisan coöperation, with the two sides putting aside their differences in the interest of setting up fairer fights in the future. That, in any event, is today’s fond hope.

Indeed. As Ari Berman recently put it:

Members of Congress face a choice: Do you want to make it easier or harder for people to vote? The question, and answer, is really that simple.

 

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