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January 22, 2014 5:10 PM The “Lines Commission” Report Bears Fragile Fruit

By Ed Kilgore

If you haven’t spent much time anticipating the report of the bipartisan commission the President promised to appoint on Election Night 2012 to deal with long voting lines, don’t feel bad. The general feeling was that the partisan polarization over voting procedures—or, to put it more bluntly, the increasingly powerful and open desire of Republicans to make voting as hard as possible for the kind of people who tend to vote Democratic—would make this “lines commission” a joke or a non-starter.

But mirabile dictu, the commission’s report is out, and if you accept their refusal to talk about Voter ID Laws or the Voting Rights Act as a legitimate reflection of a mandate limited to Election Day procedures, it’s pretty impressive. Here’s Jeffrey Toobin’s summary at the New Yorker:

• More early voting. More mail and Internet voting would take care of the biggest problem in 2012, long lines. This is a clear embrace of a Democratic priority.
• Easier voter registration, including online. Again, this is a top Democratic priority, though the commission also gives a nod to technologies that compare databases and allow purges of ineligible voters, which have been a Republican cause.
• Improved voting technology. After the 2000 fiasco in Florida, the federal government subsidized the purchase of many new voting machines, but these are now approaching the end of their useful lives. The commission recommends ending the hegemony of the specialized voting machine and allowing voters to use their own computers to print out their ballots at home, like they do with boarding passes. With the right security in place, this makes all the sense in the world.
• The legacy of Newtown. The commission learned, surprisingly, that in the wake of school massacres, many schools are determined to keep strangers off the premises at all times—and that includes voters. Schools represent about twenty per cent of all polling places, and the commission proposed putting even more to use, so this creates a serious problem. The report recommends “taking all the steps necessary to address these legitimate security concerns,” as well as trying to arrange days when children aren’t present—ones set aside for teacher training, for example—to coincide with elections. (Election Day is only a holiday in some states.) Again, early voting and improved technology can address these issues.

This last issue is not one considered major in 2012, but could be a real sleeper in the future. The others have long been identified as significant, but the question is whether anyone will do anything about it. In that respect, Greg Sargent identifies another notable thing about the commission report:

One of the most important things about the report is that it unabashedly identifies our voting difficulties as a national problem that requires a national solution. “We view the recommendations as broad-based solutions to common problems evident on a national scale,” the report says. “The recommendations in this report are targeted at common problems shared by all or most jurisdictions. For the most part, they are of a size that should fit all.”
The report does discuss some regional variations, but this is a clear declaration of the scope of the problem, and the required scope of the solution. Indeed, the report recommends the creation of a national standard: “no citizen should have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote.”

This is a pretty clear mandate for another run at congressional voting procedures legislation to do what the failed Help America Vote Act of 2002 didn’t do: provide enough carrots and sticks to push and pull state and local governments into making the necessary reforms of how they run elections. Democrats would be foolish not to make this effort immediately, not only challenging Republicans to adopt the clear recommendations of a strongly bipartisan commission, but to make it clear to voters even this November that whatever their views on Obamacare or jobs or Iran, there is at least one party determined to let them have their say without being treated like cattle or presumptive criminals.

Without a sustained push in Congress and elsewhere, the surprising fruit of the “Lines Commission” will prove fragile.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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