Another drive is under way to reform the nation’s election system -- this one led by a new bipartisan commission. Expectations, as usual, are low. Even before President Barack Obama named the members of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration in May, the defeatist drumbeat had begun. Commissions are ineffective; there is too much partisan rancor to get anything done; registration snafus and long lines at polls can’t be solved.
Such cynicism is easy to understand. Election reform is an issue on which there is what might be called “gridlock-plus.” In addition to the usual difficulty in getting bipartisan agreement in Washington, there is the heightened partisanship that both parties bring to fights over election rules. When it comes to voting, each side digs in its heels against proposals that might reduce its vote or loosen its grip on power.
There is also a discouraging track record. The graveyard of voting reform overflows with well-intentioned initiatives. As a senator, Hillary Clinton sponsored a wide-ranging election reform bill. It never came close to passing. In 2005, former President Jimmy Carter and former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker led an ambitious election reform commission. Its proposals were dead on arrival.
It would be a mistake, however, to buy into defeatism too fully. If the new election administration commission makes shrewd recommendations, they could lead to significant improvements.
The commission should propose two kinds of reforms. First, it should identify proposals that have managed in the past to attract bipartisan support. Second, the commission should work to develop something more ambitious: a “grand bargain” that might encompass the biggest election-reform goals of both Democrats and Republicans.
The first category of reforms -- those that have won at least a fair amount of bipartisan support -- is larger than it might seem. In states and nationally, both Democrats and Republicans have backed a variety of technocratic improvements to make voting more efficient and reliable.
A notable example is the Help America Vote Act, which was signed in 2002 by President George W. Bush after Congress passed it by wide margins. The measure, enacted when the memory of the 2000 election was still fresh, allocated millions of dollars to replace antiquated voting machines and guaranteed any voter whose eligibility was challenged at the polls the right to cast a provisional ballot.
At the state level, early voting has received bipartisan support, cutting waiting time at polls and making it easier for people with work or family obligations to find time to vote. (Casting ballots in advance of Election Day also gives voters more time to prove their eligibility in the event it is challenged.) There has been a sharp rise in early voting; 32 states and Washington now allow it, up from just nine in 1998. It has been adopted in blue states such as Illinois and Maryland, red states including Oklahoma and North Dakota, and a good number of purple ones.
There have been some partisan battles over early voting recently, but on the whole, the early-voting revolution has been bipartisan. Likewise, practical solutions to make voting work better, such as online voter registration and automated systems for updating voter rolls, have been popular with both Republicans and Democrats.
In addition to adopting practical reforms, the commission should shoot for something potentially more significant: a “grand bargain” that addresses the hardest issues in voting. The partisan battles over election law today are, for the most part, a clash of two strongly held principles. Democrats believe eligible voters face too many obstacles and that reforms should make voting easier; Republicans believe stronger security measures are necessary to ensure that those who shouldn’t vote, don’t.
The commission could fashion a compromise that advances both principles. It could increase access to the ballot box by drastically reducing voter registration requirements, long lines and unnecessary barriers to participation, such as onerous rules for registering new voters. At the same time, it could give Republicans something they might value as highly: a national voter-identification requirement to ensure that voters are who they say they are.
This would not be an easy peace to broker. The conventional wisdom has long been that Democrats will never support a voter-ID requirement because it would inevitably prevent some citizens from voting. In fact, one of the main reasons the recommendations of the Carter-Baker Commission went nowhere was strong opposition to its proposal that ID be required to vote.
There are several reasons, however, to believe that a national voter-ID rule could now be part of a well-crafted compromise. The Carter-Baker recommendations failed in large part because they were unbalanced. They gave Republicans a national voter-ID requirement, but they failed to give Democrats anything nearly as significant. A compromise that ties a national voter-ID requirement to serious removal of barriers to voting -- allowing same-day registration in every state, for example -- could strike a better balance.
Another consideration is the changed landscape for voter ID. At least 30 states now require voter ID, and the number keeps growing. Opponents once had hoped to get voter-ID laws struck down as unconstitutional, but in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to one of the nation’s strictest voter-ID laws. If voter ID is going to be required in most of the country anyway, it might be worth accepting voter-ID requirements nationally in exchange for making voting easier in other ways and requiring that the federal government make free voter identification available to every eligible voter in the nation.
Rather than address its recommendations to the states, the commission should propose federal legislation, for a simple reason: Americans’ right to vote in federal elections should be protected by the federal government. Democracy’s foundation shouldn’t be dependent on the vagaries of state election laws or the whims of state officials.
If Congress does not rise to the challenge of fixing American elections -- and given its current dysfunction, it may not -- the hard work of election reform will fall to the states. To prepare for that contingency, the commission should develop ambitious blueprints for changes at the state level in addition to proposing federal legislation. Without federal help, it would be up to the citizens of each state to fight to make that vision a reality.
(Adam Cohen is the author of “Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America.”)
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