“There are plenty of Republicans who are suspicious of federal efforts in this area, but I’m glad Ben decided to do it,” said Trevor Potter, who served as John McCain’s general counsel in his two presidential bids. “Ben is not a miracle worker, but he has a good reputation, and people will listen to the group. Assuming that both parties have the same interest of having the system work and voters being able to vote, then it shouldn’t turn out to be as partisan as it would be in the middle of the election.”
During the 2012 campaign, voter access emerged as a highly partisan issue, with Republicans in several states reducing early voting hours and pushing identification requirements.
Liberals and progressives argued that such measures had the potential to disproportionately disenfranchise elderly, low-income and minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic.
More than a dozen states across the country revamped voting laws to curb voter fraud and voting irregularities and implemented identification laws, though the Justice Department blocked several of the laws in the months before Election Day, including in Pennsylvania.
Congressional Democrats have convened a Task Force on Election Reform, led by Rep. John B. Larson (Conn.), aimed at producing legislation on voting rights and campaign-finance reform.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) introduced the Simple (Streamlined and Improved Methods at Polling Locations and Early Voting) Act. The bill would require each state to institute a 15-day early-voting period before Election Day and would impose a one-hour limit on the time voters must wait to cast their ballot.
Several House Democrats, including Clyburn, Rep. John R. Lewis (Ga.) and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), last month introduced the Voter Empowerment Act of 2013. The measure, which has 167 co-sponsors and which was originally introduced during the last Congress, would enact far-reaching changes to the way elections are held, such as requiring each state to allow online voter registration and early voting, as well as permitting convicted criminals to vote after they have completed their sentences. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is the lead sponsor of similar legislation in the Senate.
Several other voting-related bills have been introduced in this Congress, including the Value Our Time Elections Act, by Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), and the John Tanner Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act, by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.). On the Senate side, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has introduced the Clean and Fair Elections Act, which has garnered 18 co-sponsors, and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has introduced the Line (Lines Interfere with National Elections) Act.
Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) have also introduced the Fast Act, a measure that would reward states that take action to reduce their waiting times and make voting more accessible.
Action on the measures is unlikely in the Republican-led House or the Democratic-controlled Senate, however, and some voting rights advocates who have long wanted a high profile for the issue see the commission as a move in the right direction.
“I think the commission is something tangible and concrete that will help us move toward the goal of moving Congress toward national standards,” said Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project. “Obama could have proposed a bill, but there is already a bill. We need to keep building public will toward fixing this, and I think the president is doing his part. The problem is Congress.”
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott (R) announced a bipartisan review of his state’s election laws after a long ballot and a shortened voting window caused wait times of several hours.
Election-law observers say states are experimenting with ways to make voting easier, including online voter registration and computerized databases that keep track of a voter’s information when he moves.
“The challenge for the commission will be to make sure that the participants are going to approach this in a constructive and data-driven way. If it’s ideological, the commission won’t accomplish much and the states won’t listen,” said David Becker, director of election initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “But if they bring together research-focused people who are not looking at elections as how a winner is determined, but who will look at it as how our democracy works, then they are going to find that the states are going to be receptive to their recommended solutions.”