Obama’s commission launched with earlier recommendations on U.S. election administration largely forgotten

More than six months since Election Night 2012 when President Obama stated that “we have to fix that” in a reference to long lines at polling places, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration was finally launched yesterday with the appointment of ten commission members, including two co-chairs.

With a limited mandate to shorten lines at polling places, promote the efficient conduct of elections, and provide better access to the polls for all voters, the Commission will present a final report to the president within six months of its first public meeting, expected to be held next month.

Headed by Co-Chairs Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg – a Democrat and a Republican – the commissioners are “experts in election administration, policy and procedures, or leaders from customer service-oriented businesses and industry,” according to the Commission’s official press release.

“The President’s expectation is clear,” said Bauer. “The Commission is charged with developing recommendations based on the best information available for administrative practices that afford voters the opportunity to cast ballots without undue delay and improve their overall experience.”

Election 2012 – like many U.S. elections in recent years – was marred by long lines in several states, especially Florida, Ohio and Virginia. The causes were typically a combination of broken-down equipment, insufficient training of poll workers, and an organized GOP effort to roll back early voting days, which increased the volume of voters on Election Day.

Yesterday’s announcement of the Commission’s composition received a lukewarm response from election reform advocates, some of whom pointed out that bold action is needed to tackle the U.S.’s many electoral problems, and the appointment of another commission – especially one with such a limited mandate – is anything but bold action.

“A number of election experts have expressed doubts that the panel will have much impact because the goals are modest,” reported NPR. Academics, activists, election officials and international observers have been studying ways to improve election administration for years, and it’s unclear what, if anything, new the commission can add to this knowledge in six months.

In a statement, League of Women Voters President Elizabeth McNamara lamented that Obama’s presidential commission is “a weak response to a big problem.” She expressed disappointment in Obama’s response to improving U.S. elections to date and reiterated LWV’s calls for “bold changes like those suggested in our four point plan to make elections free, fair and accessible.” Specifically, LWV wants to see secure online voter registration, permanent and portable statewide voter registration, expanded early voting, and improved polling place management.

Other election reform advocates were more optimistic about the new Commission, however.

Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center, which has extensively documented the causes of long lines at polls and advocated various solutions, said in a statement:

We are delighted the president’s voting commission will soon be up and running. The commission will spotlight the urgent need to improve our election system to ensure it works well for all eligible Americans. We urge the commission to recommend bold solutions to modernize voting. America needs to upgrade how we register voters, when we vote, and how we manage polling places. We hope this will be a great step forward to improve the way America runs elections and ensure the system is free, fair, and accessible.

Rick Hasen, a law professor at UC Irvine and publisher of the Election Law Blog, explained that the commission is seeking to avoid contentious issues such as general voting rights in order to keep the panel from being bogged down in partisan squabbling.

“While including voting-rights advocates might make sense in the abstract, the Commission is walking a difficult political line to stay above the partisan fray as much as possible,” Hasen said. “Including voting-rights advocates would have led those on the right to call for more balance.”

McNamara, however, disagreed. “If they’re not talking about secure online voter registration that’s available to everybody, not just those with driver’s licenses; if they’re not talking about early voting; if they’re not talking about polling place resources; if they’re not talking about permanent and portable voter registration, then we just don’t believe that they’re going to be talking about the issues that really cause the lines on Election Day,” she said.

It could also be noted that the long waiting times on Election Day are really just the tip of the iceberg of an electoral system plagued by partisan manipulation and racial bias. As NAACP Head Benjamin Jealous has called it, “the hyperpartisanization” of election administration has enabled “a strategy to suppress the participation of working-class people, of senior citizens, of students, who tend to vote for the Democrats, by making it unbearable.”

He noted in an interview earlier this year that in the secretary of states’ and county clerks offices around the country, there are “people coming in with a real, you know, partisan purpose in what should be a very kind of democratic—small-d—mission.”

Jealous said that in Florida alone, long Election Day lines around the state may have turned away more than 200,000 frustrated would-be voters who gave up and went home before they cast ballots. According a report published this month by the American Bar Association, there was a clear racial and political bias in the average waiting times, with blacks, Hispanics and Democrats facing significantly longer waits. According to the ABA’s data, black voters experienced an average 23.3 minute wait and Hispanic voters experienced an 18.7 minute wait, compared to an 11.6 minute wait by white voters. Similarly, strong Democratic voters had a significantly longer average waiting time (15.6 minutes) than strong Republican voters (11.4 minutes).

“And this is the, if you will, the most basic, most rudimentary form of voter suppression,” according to Ben Jealous. “It’s—what we’ve seen since 2000 is, whether it’s secretaries of state or whether it’s county clerks, you know, the folks who are running it in their county, it’s become very politicized, and folks really making, in many cases, explicitly political decisions about where they even put these machines, who gets a few machines and long lines, who gets a lot of machines and no lines, trying to skew the outcome.”

The root problem here, of course, is that partisan interests are given free reign over election administration in the United States. From the national level to the state level to the local level, elected representatives and partisan hacks manipulate and game the system to ensure preferred electoral outcomes, in a system generally out of line with international electoral standards.

As the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights rather mildly put it in its final report on the 2012 U.S. election, released last February:

General elections are administered at the state level and there is no federal election management body with oversight responsibilities. On the state level, administrative authority is vested in the respective state secretary or state election board. However, the greater part of election administration is typically delegated to county or lower-level election officials, resulting in a wide variety of electoral practices across the country.

Overall, the election administration performed their duties in a professional and transparent manner and enjoyed the trust of the majority of stakeholders. The composition of election administration bodies varies across states. While some senior election officials are appointed, others are elected. Election administration bodies are often partisan, although 19 states and the District of Columbia provide bipartisan or independent bodies. Very few OSCE/ODIHR LEOM interlocutors raised concerns about the impartiality of county election officials. However, some county-level election supervisors ran on party tickets for re-election in 2012, raising possible conflicts of interest.

In order to avoid these conflicts of interest, the OSCE recommended that “if senior election officials at state and lower levels are elected, the states could consider holding such elections in non-federal election years, to avoid any real or perceived conflicts of interest.” Further, “there should be a national body with sufficient resources and outreach capacity to provide guidance on election administration and serve as a central clearinghouse to develop good electoral practices. Congress should ensure that such a body has the necessary financial and human resources to fulfil these duties in an effective manner.”

In its preliminary post-election statement issued in November 2012, the OSCE reminded U.S. authorities of the 87 recommendations of the 2005 report of the Commission on Federal Election Reform, the so-called Carter-Baker Commission, most of which have never been implemented.

The Carter-Baker Commission’s most important recommendation was for the United States to move toward nonpartisan election administration. Carter-Baker recommended in particular that states strip election responsibilities from partisan elected secretaries of state, placing them instead in the hands of professional election administrators appointed by governors and approved by a supermajority vote of state legislators.

Implementing this one recommendation from the final report of the 2005 Carter-Baker Commission would likely have a much greater impact in ensuring fair elections in the U.S. than any number of limited recommendations that might emerge from Obama’s newly appointed commission.

The problem, however, is that moving to a truly nonpartisan method of election administration could actually open up the U.S. electoral system to multi-party competition – including providing a level playing field for independent parties such as the Greens and the Libertarians – and this is the last thing that the two-party duopoly in Washington wants.

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