POLITICS
02/16/2013 09:16 am ET | Updated Feb 16, 2013

Obama's Voting Reform Plan All Pomp, Little Circumstance

It's now pretty much an historical fact that the road to President Barack Obama's re-election ended up running a lot smoother than the hyped-up punditocracy had predicted in advance of Election Day. That is, at least from the perspective of the candidate and his campaign functionaries. Closer to ground-level, Election Day was anything but smooth for large swathes of the electorate, who in many cases encountered long lines, late nights, the usual widespread confusion, or some combination of all three.

That night, in his acceptance speech, Obama acknowledged this in a line that had the feel of an ad lib: "I want to thank every American who participated in this election. Whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time -- by the way, we have to fix that." The pointed acknowledgement of the rigors many voters faced that night birthed new hopes in the hearts of voter reform, that the president would take on the matter, and bring long-needed correctives to the overall voter experience. And this week, ahead of Obama's State Of The Union address, the voter reform set kept those hopes aloft as the rumors flew that their concerns were going to get a mention.

There certainly was a goodly dose of pageantry surrounding the issue when Obama came to Capitol Hill to address both houses of Congress and the nation at large. One of the evening's honored guests was Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old Florida woman whose struggles to vote in Miami were near legendary. That night, Obama honored her commitment to voting thusly:

"When she arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours," the president said. "And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her. Because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read, 'I Voted.'"

As far as putting a human face on the problems many Americans faced on Election Day, you could do a lot worse than Desiline Victor. For my part, I'll say that any American who was born at the beginning of the 20th century, who went on to live through the shudder-wince-flop that was American political culture from the 1980s to the late-aughts, and still was of the mind that their vote could make a difference in 2012 has a reservoir of optimism that I -- in my basic belief that the current trajectory of institutional decline will bring such daily dollops of fresh hell and idiocracy by the 2030s that I'll be looking to cast my vote for the "Do Not Resuscitate" Party -- cannot even begin to fathom.

Naturally, Victor briefly became the object of mockery for a gaggle of Fox News personalities, who couldn't fathom why any of the hurdles Victor faced should be considered an undue imposition. But as Dave Weigel points out, Victor's experience sat squarely in the center of two of the larger problems on Election Night: "1) voting lines were asymmetrically longer in black and Hispanic precincts than in white precincts, 2) at least 200,000 Floridians gave up on voting last year because the lines were too long."

Of course, one important thing to mention is that the impediments Desiline Victor faced this past year were much the same as the ones that existed when she was a slightly spryer 98-year-old. In 2008, the lines to vote were long and the waits were, for many, epic.

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Back when Victor was a youthful 94 years old, the 2004 election included the legendary 10-hour waits for the students in Kenyon College in Ohio. And they were hardly an outlier. As Adam Cohen reported in the New York Times, "there were complaints of long lines in other states, including Colorado, Michigan and Florida, where elderly voters endured waits in blistering heat." And as he related, elsewhere in Ohio, the spread of rumors about a GOP threat to suppress the vote ended up revealing a much more mundane problem:

I was in Ohio on Election Day 2004. The night before the voting, rumors spread that there would be a major effort by Republican operatives to challenge the registrations of voters in majority-black precincts. Those large-scale challenges did not materialize. But tens of thousands of votes were suppressed by something so mundane that no one thought to focus on it: long lines.

In Columbus, as many as 15,000 people left the polls without voting, many because of long lines. At a post-election hearing, a Youngstown pastor estimated that 8,000 black voters there did not cast ballots because of a machine shortage.

And when Victor was 90, her home state of Florida was the host state in the greatest election kerfuffle of all time -- the Florida recount, and all its hanging chads, butterfly ballots, Brooks Brothers riots, and legal entanglements. And while most still bitterly recall that election for its rancor-causing result, again, the larger problem was more mundane -- the lack of uniform voting standards and the systemic vulnerabilities that arise as a result.

All of which is just to say that the need to reform this system, and lessen the burden on those who participate in it, has been a pressing matter for a long while now. And that's where Obama's suggested corrective -- the empaneling of special presidential commission on election reform -- strikes me as a little strange in that it really fails to acknowledge that the problems that Desiline Victor faced in 2012 have been enduring ones. They aren't new. They didn't suddenly just appear out of nowhere. So I wonder: was that "we gotta fix that line," from Obama's Election Night speech, just a lighthearted bit of "Oh, I just noticed this!" charm, or did he literally just notice the problem?

I bring this up because in the eyes of many veteran election reformers, the creation of a new commission to commence the studying of the problem just feels like redundant work. If all you want to do is fix the long lines, well, The Brennan Center for Justice, already has a fully fleshed-out blueprint for that. There is also the Pew Elections Performance Index, which "measures state performance based on 17 indicators, which include the length of lines, the accuracy of voting technology, and the percentage of voters who experienced problems registering or casting an absentee ballot," and sets out standards for best practices.

Voter reform vets have been tangling with these issues for some time, and when they game out what's possible in a bipartisan voter reform deal, they already have solid ideas. Some of the typical recommendations include federal grants to states for developing online voter registration and bringing underserved rural districts the same level of professionalism you find in high-tech urban districts, creating a regime in which you have universal voter registration that extends to Election Day, and universal in-person early voting. Many even recommend that we pre-register voters ahead of time, to smooth and streamline the process, and combine the pre-registering of 16-year-olds with civics education that have young voters fully-clued in to the process years in advance of having to cast their first votes.

At any rate, this new commission can just skip all the discussion and get right to implementing these solutions. Heck, as Ryan J. Reilly points out, the president can simply "reactivate the Election Assistance Commission established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002." As Reilly reports:

Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said repairing the commission may restore its purpose of protecting every eligible voter's right to vote.

“There’s a federal agency that’s actually supposed to be providing administrative support to state elections officials, and funding,” Weiser told The Huffington Post. “That agency is currently languishing without any commissioners, any active commissioners at all. So there need to be nominations, they need to be confirmed.”

That commission has not had actual commissioners since 2011.

The actions that Obama seems prepared to take are already getting widely panned. The League Of Women Voters, for example, were out straightaway with a statement expressing disappointment:

Setting up a commission is not a bold step; it is business as usual. The president could have done much better by pointing to real solutions like that in legislation already introduced on Capitol Hill to require early voting, set limits on waiting times, provide for portable voter registration and set up secure online voter registration.

The league's president, Elizabeth MacNamara, went further in her criticisms in an interview with HuffPost Live (which you can view above):

"He is essentially kicking the can down the road by appointing a commission," MacNamara told HuffPost Live. "Every four years we go through this. Every four years we know that there are going to be long lines. So we are disappointed that rather than taking bold action, the president has decided to appoint a commission instead."

[...]

She told HuffPost Live's Jacob Soboroff that the league has put forward four priorities it would like to see the president address: 1) making sure voters have permanent and portable registration within their states; 2) establishing secure online voter registration; 3) setting standards for early voting; and 4) ensuring we have equitable distribution of polling places.

If there's a common thread to the criticisms of veteran reformers, it's that their experience teaches them that true reforms come with an examination of the entire process of voting, and the willingness to improve the system at all points on the timeline. That's the danger of using a Desiline Victor as the face of voter reform, actually. To truly achieve the optimal result for voters, would-be reformers actually have to spend less time fretting about what happens on Election Day, and more time examining the entire process of registering, educating, and empowering voters holistically.

"The earlier a child starts learning, the more likely he is to succeed," Obama said on Friday, rolling out his ambitious plans for universal early childhood education. The same principle applies to voter reform, but there, Obama's not nearly as bold.

Frankly, the whole proposed commission feels more like an exercise in personal branding than an initiative intended to produce robust results. Right now, to advance his second-term agenda, Obama has to illuminate the vulpine intransigence of the GOP opposition, and marshal public support for action and compromise against it. At the same time, he's still essentially required to burnish his reputation as a "Washington tone-changer," because the Beltway media -- whose thirst to report (if not enable) stories of division is only matched by desire to parade around like Pecksniffian scolds at the sight of it -- all but requires Obama to keep trying to make nice. (Not that anyone's ever noticed!)

And so, the new commission's major feature is its kumbayah bipartisanship, combining Obama campaign general counsel Bob Bauer and Romney campaign lawyer Ben Ginsburg in a show of hatchet-burying post-partisan resolve. So they will start from scratch, as reformers who've put their wits to the challenge wait to see if they can shepherd something -- anything! -- that matches their well-founded prescriptives to the president's desk.

That is, if the commission can manage that at all. As Politico's Ben White tweeted -- I assure you, sarcastically -- on the night of the State Of The Union, "Nothing stirs Americans like the announcement of a bipartisan commission." If recent misadventures ("Super" Committee, anyone?) in this governing genre are any guide, there's a good chance that somehow, the Bauer-Ginsburg commission will find a way to make voter lines 16 hours long and the voters standing in them will be constantly attacked by marauding mountain lions.

Hyperbolic, I know, but experience teaches that the biggest omission from every commission is the commitment.

Jacob Soboroff contributed reporting.

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