Bipartisan election commission releases list of suggested fixes


Soraya Lahlou-Pinaud, 6, tries on her mother's hat while mother Mona Lahlou votes at Claude Moore Recreation Center for the Virginia 33rd state Senate seat on Jan. 21, 2014, in Sterling, Va. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

A bipartisan commission recommended a series of steps Wednesday to make it simpler to cast ballots in the next election, but largely avoided the most politically contentious issues in a debate over voter access that has become deeply partisan.

Concluding a six-month review, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration said in its report that jurisdictions should expand online voter registration and early balloting, update electronic voting equipment as first-generation voting machines grow obsolete and share voter registration records across state lines to protect against fraud.

The 112-page report also suggests improvements in the more traditional ways Americans have voted. They include increasing the number of schools used as polling places, locating polling places close to voters’ homes and simplifying voting for members of the military and other Americans living overseas through better access to state Web sites.

Together the recommendations present a comprehensive, if largely unsurprising, list of ways to make voting easier for millions of Americans — a promise President Obama made on the night of his reelection. The suggestions, all tested at the state level, occupy what is perhaps the safest ground in the partisan debate over U.S. elections, avoiding the more politically treacherous proposals surrounding online voting, same-day registration and other issues.

The report is part of a broader political debate about voting rights as the two major parties argue about how simple it should be for Americans to register and cast ballots while also protecting against fraud. Last week, lawmakers from both parties presented an amendment to the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that proposes stricter voter ID requirements and other changes.

Obama, who appointed the commission, called its suggestions “eminently glittering” after receiving them Wednesday, and said the White House intends to “reach out to stakeholders all across the country to make sure that we can implement” the commission’s report.

“One of the troubling aspects of the work that they did was hearing from local officials indicating that we could have even more problems in the future if we don’t act now,” Obama said before meeting with commission members at the White House.

Who should vote, and how easy it should be to do so, has emerged again in recent years as a highly contested partisan question.

Many Republicans argue that the federal government should not be involved in voting issues, given that administering elections is largely the responsibility of states. But some Democrats say threats to voting access require a federal response, particularly new state and local restrictions that have made registering to vote more difficult.

The Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act last year, ruling that Congress had not taken into account the nation’s progress on issues of race in deciding which states require federal oversight of minority voting rights. The ruling affected many Southern states that have become reliably Republican in recent elections.

The election commission, criticized by some members of both parties when Obama announced it last year, left aside the issue of race in assessing access to voting places and waiting times for casting ballots.

But the panel said bilingual poll workers should be available “to any polling place with a significant number of voters who do not speak English,” a suggestion that is likely to concern Republicans who have complained that Obama formed the commission to drive up Democratic votes. Latino voters, who comprise 10 percent of the electorate, favored Obama by more than 40 percentage points over Mitt Romney in 2012.

“We discovered, as officials, experts and members of the public from across the country testified, that voters’ expectations are remarkably uniform and transcend differences of party and political perspective,” the 10-member commission wrote in the report’s cover letter. “The electorate seeks above all modern, efficient and responsive administrative performance in the conduct of elections.”

Many voters, particularly those living in poor neighborhoods, waited for hours to cast ballots in the 2012 election. In his reelection victory speech, Obama thanked “every American who participated in this election — whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time.”

“By the way,” he added, “we have to fix that.”

Obama created the election commission in March, naming Benjamin L. Ginsberg and Robert F. Bauer as co-chairmen. The men served as the chief lawyers of the Romney and Obama presidential campaigns, respectively.

The panel only recommended changes, such as expanded online registration, that have already been implemented in some states.

David Becker, the director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Election Initiative, which provided research and data to the commission, said the recommendations have been successful in states but “have yet to reach a critical mass” nationally.

“They wanted to see if there were a consensus of reforms successful at the state level that could be shared,” Becker said. “I think they wisely decided to focus on these tested reforms, carried out in red, blue and purple states.”

Behind the recommendations was a push to accelerate the use of technological advances to make voting easier and more efficient. Commissioners did not recommend a push for online voting because of continued security concerns.

The initial reaction to the recommendations from voter advocacy groups was largely positive. Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement that “overall these are a series of recommendations that make sense” but that “we have to analyze them comprehensively both for their civil rights and privacy implications.”

Heather Gerken, a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s commission on political reform, said “it is often difficult to find agreement in this fraught political environment, particularly in the area of election administration.”

Obama called on Congress and local jurisdictions to help put the recommendations into place.

“No American should have to wait more than half an hour to vote,” Obama said. “And they should know, they should be confident that their vote is being properly counted and is secure.”

Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.
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