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February 14, 2013 11:40 AM A Disappointing Voting Initiative

By Jonathan Bernstein

For those who would like to see voting become easier, the State of the Union 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.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.