2013-05-21 15:07:00

Obama Shows He's Serious About Fixing Our Screwed-Up Election System

The President's election reform panel is filled with good people; let's hope Congress listens to them.

President Obama’s newly appointed election reform commission is filled with election officials who have a record of supporting progressive election reforms—even though some of them are known for working in red states under conservative Republicans. 

Whether Congress listens to this panel’s suggestions is another matter. Half of the 10-member panel are election state and local officials who have participated in numerous retreats sponsored by the Pew Center on the States where they have endorsed voter registration modernization that would be a vast improvement over what’s widely in practice in election administration today. Regardless of political party, they generally agreed that voter registration—which is the gateway to the process—could be made more accurate, cost-effective and efficient. As important, they all don’t think very highly of politicizing the voting process. Their fundamental commitment is making sure eligible voters can cast ballots.

The backbone of their recommendations at Pew in 2010 was creating a system where states use a mix of government databases to draw up lists of eligible voters. Then states are left to decide how they will contact those voters and what people must do to activate their registrations before casting a ballot. This centrist compromise doesn’t entirely please progressives, who want states to universally register everyone. And it doesn’t please conservatives either, who want to make voter registration and the process of voting more difficult, in order to maintain GOP political power in states with increasingly diverse populations.

But, if Obama’s blue ribbon committee draws on the thinking that’s been done by these same people, what’s likely to emerge is a system where the government draws up eligible voter lists, attempts to contact new voters and people who move, and has better voter information databases and tracking ability on Election Day to ensure that anyone who wants to vote has an easier time crossing the finish line and casting a ballot. One impact of this more modernized approach—which would appeal to Republicans—is that a larger state role in enrolling voters would lessen the need for registration drives that have been attacked as unprofessional, such as by ACORN in 2008. However, the fact that states might rely on government data to identify people as eligible voters also would put GOP "voter integrity groups" out of business, because the government would be using data gathered under penalty of perjury.

Obama’s panel is headed by two of the country’s top election lawyers—Democrat Bob Bauer and Republican Benjamin Ginsberg—who are known for using any tactic to win and then saying there’s nothing wrong with the process because their side won. The panel also has people whose professional lives are in corporate America and not in running elections. Both these lawyers and executives are likely to defer to the real experts—people who have run elections for years.

In that latter category is former Tennessee Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson; Clark County, Nevada (Las Vegas), Registrar Larry Lomax; former Texas Director of Elections Ann McGeehan; Maricopa County, Arizona, (Phoenix) longtime election official Tammy Patrick, and Michigan Director of Elections Christopher Thomas. These officials know exactly what does and doesn't work in elections. They may get mixed reveiws from some progressive groups, but many of them have improved voting in their state, though that hasn't gotten press attention.

For example, in Michigan, under a Republican Secretary of State, Christopher Thomas instituted an Election Day affidavit that a person who said she had registered—but wasn’t on the polling place list—could sign, under penalty of perjury, to get a ballot and vote. A handful of states have this option, which gives the benefit of the doubt to voters.

Whatever this panel may suggest could easily be disregarded by Congress, especially because they are likely to take a less confrontational tone than many Republicans who have talked up so-called voter fraud might prefer. However, it seems inexorable that advances in data management will be applied to the voting process, as they are everywhere else in society. And with that comes the promise of making voting more accurate, cost-effective and efficient—and easier and more inclusive. That is, if Congress wants to make voting that way.

(Full disclosure: In 2009-2010 the author worked with Pew and many of these state and local election directors to write a report on voter registration modernization in which half these officials took part.)

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