Presidential Commission on Election Administration offers worthwhile ideas for reform (but don’t hold your breath)

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration yesterday presented its final report with a series of recommendations designed to help elections officials improve the voting process in the United States. The report is the result of a six-month study conducted by the bipartisan 10-member commission focused on the election day problems that have plagued voting in recent U.S. elections.

At first glance, it may appear to some that the commission is attempting to limit discussion of U.S. electoral problems to simple and relatively uncontroversial issues such as modernizing voting technology and reducing average wait times for voters. (The commission proposes a maximum nationwide wait time of 30 minutes.)

As Ben Jacobs at the Daily Beast pointed out, “The commission dodged issues normally associated with partisan battles, such as voter ID and the Voting Rights Act.” Avoiding even more contentious matters such as opening up the two-party system to multi-party competition or leveling the playing field by implementing genuine campaign finance reform, the commission’s key recommendations call for:

  • modernizing the registration process through continued expansion of online voter registration and expanded state collaboration in improving the accuracy of voter lists;
  • improving access to the polls through expansion of the period for voting before the traditional Election Day, and through the selection of suitable, well-equipped polling place facilities, such as schools;
  • introducing state-of-the-art techniques to assure efficient management of polling places; and,
  • reforming the standard-setting and certification process for new voting technology to address soon-to-be antiquated voting machines and to encourage innovation and the adoption of widely available off-the-shelf technologies.

Delving a little deeper into the report, there appear to be several worthwhile recommendations that are surprisingly frank in their criticism of the highly flawed U.S. electoral system. Some of the document’s most useful recommendations arguably pertain to improving the general professionalism of election administration in the United States.

The report explains the unique nature of the U.S. electoral system in relation to the rest of the world, with most other electoral systems having central election commissions that govern national elections.

“Other countries exhibit one or another of these features in their election systems, but none have the particular combination that characterizes administration in the United States,” the report explains. “Decentralization and reliance on volunteers ensure that the quality of administration varies by jurisdiction and even by polling place. The involvement of officials with partisan affiliations means that the rules or their interpretations will be subject to charges of partisanship depending on who stands to win from the officials’ decisions.”

One overriding problem that the commission identified was the partisan nature of election administration. Because all election officials (whether elected or appointed) are selected on a partisan basis, “those who run our elections are subjected to competing pressures from partisans and political constituencies, on the one hand, and their obligation to the voting public as a whole, on the other,” the commission noted.

Because the selection of election officials on a partisan basis can risk public confidence in the quality and impartiality of administration, the commission recommended that the responsible agency in every state should have on staff individuals chosen solely on the basis of experience and expertise.

In a section of the report on “Incorporation of Recommendations Made by Other Commissions and Organizations,” there is curiously no mention of recommendations made by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has been observing U.S. elections since 2002, or the long-outstanding recommendations of the 2005 Commission on Federal Election Reform, the so-called Carter-Baker Commission.

In its preliminary post-election statement issued in November 2012, the OSCE reminded U.S. authorities of the 87 recommendations of the Carter-Baker Commission, most of which have never been implemented. One of that commission’s most important recommendations 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.

There are several other important issues that are conspicuously absent from the report released yesterday by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, some of which have been repeatedly highlighted as problematic by international election observers of the OSCE.

There is no mention in the report, for example, of the election-rigging practice known as gerrymandering, which enabled Republicans to keep control of the House of Representatives despite losing the popular vote nationwide by 1.4 million votes in 2012. 

In a recent publication outlining best electoral practices for OSCE member states (including the U.S.), the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights tacitly criticized the American system of drawing congressional districts. “Electoral constituencies should be drawn in a manner that preserves equality among voters,” noted ODIHR, adding that “the manner in which constituencies are drawn should not circumvent the principle of equal suffrage.”

Yet, many U.S. states use an arcane and highly politicized system of drawing district boundaries based on past voting histories and racial composition in order to dilute the voting power of certain groups and virtually ensure preferred electoral outcomes. Following the 2010 census and redistricting process, the GOP gerrymandered congressional districts in such a way to guarantee Republican victories.

There is also the matter of permanent felon disenfranchisement in many U.S. states, which contravenes the international obligation of the United States to ensure universal and equal suffrage to each citizen who has reached the age of majority.

Yet, in the U.S., an estimated 5.85 million Americans are denied the right to vote (or seek office) because of laws that disenfranchise people with felony convictions. Because of institutionalized racial disparities in the criminal justice system, these policies have resulted in one of every 13 African Americans unable to vote.

The OSCE has repeatedly expressed serious concerns over the disproportionate impact of felon disenfranchisement in the United States.

As explained in its final report on Election 2012,

Minorities are disproportionately affected and it is estimated that 2.2 million African-Americans are disenfranchised. Prisoner and exprisoner voting rights are determined by state law and vary widely. Citizens from different states, who have committed the same crime, have their voting rights affected differently. Restrictions are often disproportionate to the crime committed and some states do not differentiate between types of crimes. Four states deprive all people with a criminal conviction of the right to vote, irrespective of the gravity of the crime or if the sentence has been served, unless pardoned by the state governor.

Another major problem in the United States is the discriminatory laws against independent, or “third,” parties. “The legal framework should ensure that all political parties and candidates are able to compete in elections on the basis of equal treatment before the law,” explained the OSCE.

Despite some of these notable ommissions, the reaction from election reform advocates to the report released yesterday seems to be generally positive.

The League of Women Voters President Elisabeth MacNamara said,

We are pleased to see that the bipartisan Commission was able to roll up their sleeves and get to work on some of the endemic troubles plaguing our nation’s polling places. PCEA’s prescription for what to do about lack of resources, inadequate compliance with federal laws, the need for professionalization of the election workforce, and creating a benchmark of no one waiting to vote longer than 30 minutes, are badly needed fixes for election administrators and voters.

Common Cause’s Karen Hobert Flynn noted that

While some of the commission’s recommendations require legislative action and appropriations, state and local election officials should act on others on their own initiative. For example, voting locations often can be better organized, and sample ballots printed more clearly and distributed earlier without added costs. All that’s needed is the will to act.

But unfortunately, as the commission itself points out, due to “the complexity and variation in local election administration … no set of practices can be considered ‘best’ for every jurisdiction.”

Some reforms that work well in certain contexts will be unnecessary or fail in others, noted the commission. In other words, don’t hold your breath for any meaningful and comprehensive nationwide election reform.

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