President Obama made a good start in his State of the Union speech at honoring his election night promise to fix the breakdowns that left tens of thousands of Americans standing in hours-long lines at the polls last November.
His moving introduction of 102-year-old Desiline Victor, who had to wait for six hours at a North Miami precinct to cast her ballot, humanized the threat to democracy posed by the rickety machinery of our elections.
And in creating a Commission on Election Administration and tapping a pair of veteran, election-savvy lawyers to head it -- one Democrat and one Republican -- the president laid a foundation for action to address that threat. Partisan divisions and suspicions are particularly intense on election-related issues, so any reforms will be doomed to failure in Congress and most states unless they have bipartisan backing.
The danger here is that the momentum for reform growing out of stories like Ms.Victor's could be squandered if Congress, the administration, and state legislatures sit idle while the commission conducts a protracted study of voting problems.
There already are reams of hard data documenting what's wrong with election administration across the country. Groups like Common Cause, the Verified Voting Foundation, the Election Protection Coalition, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Pew Election Initiatives Project, as well as the federal government's Election Assistance Commission (EAC) have studied and reported on the problems in detail.
Those groups also have developed lists of best practices for state and local election administrators and have advanced solid proposals to modernize and streamline registration and voting procedures.
The commission should review but not duplicate their work, drawing from their findings to inform its recommendations and putting a priority on getting its work done quickly. If its study drags on for a year or more, as such efforts often do in Washington, there'll be little time to pass and implement its recommendations before the 2014 elections.
While the commission works, Congress should too. There should be hearings this spring on the Voter Empowerment Act (HR 112, S 3608) and other bills already filed to modernize voter registration across the country and crack down on misinformation campaigns and other deceptive practices geared to keeping voters at home on Election Day. If Congress does its homework on those bills now, it can use the commission's recommendations later to strengthen them.
Congress also should get busy reviving the EAC, created as part of the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to help states meet HAVA's quality standards for things like updated voting equipment, provisional ballot rules, and state voter registration databases. All four seats on the commission have been vacant for more than a year, the funds appropriated to it for aid to the states have dried up, and House Republicans have passed legislation - stalled in the Senate - to shut it down.
Desiline Victor's story and others like it make a powerful case for congressional action to retain and strengthen the EAC and should drive the work of state legislators and the President's new commission as well. Only when all eligible American citizens are guaranteed access to the ballot box, will we live up to the promise of free, fair, and accessible elections. That should be the mission of Republicans and Democrats alike. Let's get on with it.