SINCE NOVEMBER, President Obama has been promising to do something about extremely long voting lines and other shameful Election Day lapses. Last week, he began to make good on his pledge, unveiling “a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America,” headed by Bob Bauer and Benjamin Ginsburg, the lawyers for Mr. Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaigns, respectively.
The Post’s Nia-Malika Henderson and Felicia Sonmez report that critics are already attacking the idea. Conservatives question why the federal government needs to get more involved with voting. Voting-rights activists wonder why the president needs a commission when he could champion any of the sensible reform proposals already sitting in Congress.
But the commission is a good idea, for at least two reasons.
First, the starting point for federal reform of election procedures, which are typically the responsibility of states and localities, is to establish evidence-based recommendations for state and local officials. That’s what the commission will be charged with doing — not imposing mandates. Not that there isn’t a good case for federal standard-setting, too; the commission’s findings could well provide a solid base on which to contemplate a more active federal role.
Second, separating the politics of election reform from the policy has become extremely difficult. Only a few years ago, members of both parties embraced reforms such as early voting. Now Democrats support changes to rules and procedures that would make it easier to vote, but Republicans oppose them, and some Republicans have actually tried to make voting more difficult. One voting-reform bill in the House has 167 co-sponsors — every one a Democrat. With a Republican co-chairman leading the president’s commission, the resulting recommendations would be more likely to gain GOP support, for reasons of substance and of optics.
The commission’s work, though, cannot be the end of the debate. Congress itself should consider establishing more basic standards in federal elections, ensuring that votes aren’t collected and counted in unreasonable or inequitable ways from place to place. One need only look at Virginia’s recent experience to see why. The last voter to cast a ballot in Fairfax County had to wait until 10:30 p.m. — 3½ hours after polls closed. Yet Virginia Republicans refused last month even some of the most obvious election reforms already used elsewhere, possibly for fear of encouraging more Democratic-leaning Virginians to vote.
If federal mandates are too much for Congress to accept, lawmakers could look to a bill Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) introduced last year that would establish a Race to the Top-like program for election reform, offering federal grants to states that adopt reform packages.
The policymaking window following the reelection of a president is probably the most favorable time for election reform. Mr. Obama’s commission probably won’t be enough — but it’s a good start.