With mid-term elections fast approaching, we cannot seem to escape the voting wars. From Wisconsin to North Carolina to Ohio, states continue to pass controversial measures to make it more difficult to register and cast ballots. Meanwhile, Congress has not acted to ensure the continued vitality of the Voting Rights Act, which remains paralyzed after last year’s troubling Supreme Court decision.
President Obama has, quite rightly, urged federal lawmakers to fix these problems. But while Washington appears incapable of action, the president can use the pen and the phone to strengthen our democracy through executive action — which requires no approval from Congress. Acting through the federal government and with the cooperation of the private sector, Obama can take steps, right now, to make registration easier, elections smoother, and the franchise stronger.
The United States has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the industrialized world. Our election administration system is a mess. Fifty million eligible Americans are not even registered to vote, and yet some states are making it harder to sign up. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court recently gutted the Voting Rights Act, which served as a vital bulwark against efforts to block access to the polls for nearly five decades. The sorry state of our voting system manifested itself in the hours-long lines of the 2012 election. These embarrassing scenes prompted the president to form a bipartisan commission to improve elections.
But despite making strong recommendations that would help bring voting into the 21st century, the commission is powerless to enforce its ideas. Plus, the bodies most empowered to overhaul our elections — Congress and state legislatures — have been too slow to fix the problem. Ten months have passed in Washington without a needed amendment to the Voting Rights Act. Other key reforms — such as the Voter Empowerment Act, which would modernize registration nationwide — have also stalled. Congressional dysfunction, coupled with ongoing restrictions on voting, has brought our democracy to a tipping point.
If there is no leadership in the Capitol, it must be found in the White House. The president can use directives — and persuasion — to boost participation and improve elections without legislation.
To start, Obama can instruct federal agencies to help eligible Americans vote. These agencies interact with millions of Americans and have unparalleled access to citizens, data, and other resources that can be used to help voters and election administrators. The president should direct his cabinet members to find ways that each of their agencies can enhance our democracy, whether it be providing outreach and civic education to students or improving ballot delivery to members of the Armed Forces.
Obama also has the power, today, to issue a presidential memorandum directing federal agencies such as the Indian Health Service, Veterans Administration, and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to provide voter registration services to citizens with whom they interact. This step alone could add millions of eligible voters to the rolls, drawn from the 1.9 million members of American Indian and Alaskan Native populations, 21 million veterans, and the approximately 700,000 new Americans who naturalize each year.
President Obama should also look beyond the executive branch by bringing together members of the private sector and asking them to use their resources to make America better at the business of running elections. A presidential convening would spur leaders of businesses and nonprofit organizations to come together to fulfill our shared civic obligation.
Companies like Disney have plenty of experience dealing with long lines — that’s why President Obama tapped Disney VP Brian Britton to serve on his voting commission. Other businesses and nonprofits have customer service expertise that could be useful at the polls. A recruitment drive among business people and other communities could encourage thousands of Americans to serve as election workers, poll watchers, and election technology consultants.
To be sure, Congress serves an important role in setting our voting policy, and the president should continue to engage lawmakers in pursuing those fixes that require legislation. But that should not stop the administration from improving those things it has the power to fix on its own.
President Obama is approaching the final years of his administration, and his chance to leave voters in a better place than he found them will soon be at an end. The president may never run for office again, but he still can leave a positive legacy for future elections. Now is the time to put words into action.