Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Disappointing Voting Initiative

For those who would like to see voting become easier, last night's SOTU riff and the planned presidential commission have to be disappointing.

Here's what Obama said:

We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes one of the most fundamental right of a democracy: the right to vote. When any American, no matter where they live or what their party, are denied that right because they can’t afford to wait for five or six or seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals.
So tonight, I’m announcing a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America. And it definitely needs improvement. I’m asking two long-time experts in the field -- who, by the way, recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney’s campaign -- to lead it. We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it, and so does our democracy.

So, to begin with, Obama is defining the problem (as he has since election night) simply as long voting lines. While it's certainly true that reducing voting lines is part of making voting easier, it omits registration hassles, restrictions on who can vote, and other ways voting is more difficult than it could be.

A commission, meanwhile, is unlikely to solve the problem. As I've said before, presidential commissions are most useful when everyone agrees that they want something done but no one wants the blame. That's certainly not the case with voting.

And picking partisan election lawyers (Democrat Robert Bauer and Republican Ben Ginsberg) to head the commission doesn't help. I'd much rather have current or former legislators -- people whose reputations would be enhanced by cutting a deal, rather than people whose reputations depend on fighting as hard as they can for their partisan interests.

Now, it's also true that no one should have had much hope for progress on this given the GOP position and divided government. So I'm not sure exactly what Obama could have done to actually effect change. However, this may be a case in which he might as well use the bully pulpit. Better, I think, to propose strong legislation to Congress -- and perhaps draw up model legislation or at least goals for the states -- than to pass it off to a commission, which isn't likely to do much more than the post-2000 voting commission. At least then it would be clear what really could be done, and what could be done about it. I do think there's a fair chance that 2012 will shame Florida and perhaps a few other states into slightly improving the election day situation, but that's only the most visible sign of the problem, not the entire thing.


  1. We need a Constitutional Amendment to deal with various aspects of our current voting mess (for instance repealing the electoral college and moving election day to the weekend). Yeah fat chance of happening this session, I know. But you could build support for it election after screwed up election until eventually the public backs it and you have the votes to pass it.

  2. He went after long lines, because long lines are unpopular, whereas for example photo-ID requirements are popular (the great majority of voters who can meet the requirement have little sympathy for the minority who cannot; moreoever, the majority tends to accept the "anti-fraud" rationale offered in support of such laws, however dubious it may be empirically).

    You have to choose your battles, and Obama chose to attack the least popular form of disfranchisement.

  3. I wouldn't say HAVA had no effect. Punchcards are simply gone in the US. That is almost entirely good, as punchcards simply disenfranchised large numbers of people. HAVA funds have also been used by registrars/clerks to modernize and upgrade a lot of important parts of the whole system.

    As for Obama defining the problem narrowly, I'm less bothered than you by it. The commission isn't bound by the SOTU mention, but by their marching orders. (Which don't really "bind" them, but you get the point) Now, maybe he'll charge them with looking at the other parts, too, and maybe they'll drop that when they're unable to come to agreement, and it will end up looking like we just get a report on lines. Dealing with lines is a good thing, in and of itself. I'm at the point where I'll take baby steps in the right direction over leaps in the wrong direction.

  4. Does Congress even have much authority here (absent a constitutional amendment)? I'm thinking of the following argument:

  5. What David T said, above. And I would argue that this whole exercise is just an opening move.

    Republicans have no interest in making it easier to vote - they clearly see their own interest as making it harder. So a commission is no more useless in immediate practical terms than anything else Obama could do or suggest.

    But come the summer of 2014, Obama will be positioned to go on the road saying, in effect, "The Republicans are trying to take away your right to vote!"

    Changing the turnout dynamics in 2014 is surely a longshot - it is just plain harder to turn out 'marginal voters' for some obscure congressional candidate in the off-year. But telling his supporters that they're being disenfranchised is probably his best shot at getting them to turn out.

  6. Ben Ginsberg to reform voting? In my opinion, he should probably be in jail for the voting suppresion he has done over the decades.

  7. I agree with your point that present or former legislators should head the commission. If the people who are responsible for fixing a problem like this are more interested with giving their party a win rather than finding a solution we have an entirely different problem that needs to be dealt with.


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