Now that President Barack Obama has appointed the members of his new Presidential Commission on Election Administration, the hard work begins: developing reforms that would both improve the voting process and have a realistic chance of being adopted. Despite what some skeptics have said, the commission has the potential to make a real difference.
To maximize its chances of success, the commission should develop two sets of recommendations: first, a list of technocratic improvements that can attract bipartisan support; second, a more ambitious “grand bargain” to transform U.S. elections by enacting some of the bigger reforms that both Democrats and Republicans have sought.
Reform should start at the beginning of the process: voter registration. To improve the nation’s abysmal registration rates, Congress should extend online registration to the 33 states that don’t currently allow it. Online registration is far easier for voters than showing up at an election office and requesting forms. It also makes voter-registration drives easier, enabling workers to dispense with paper forms and register voters directly on laptop or tablet computers.
The registration process would be more successful if the government took an active role in it, rather than relying on voters to get themselves registered. Eligible voters should automatically be registered when they get a driver’s license, register their car, get married, sign up for social services, graduate from high school or enroll in a public university.
To address another recurring problem -- long voting lines - - the commission should call for an expansion of voting by mail and other forms of early voting, which reduce the stress on polling sites by spreading voting over many days. At the very least, the commission should call on the 18 states that don’t have early voting to adopt it, and it should recommend national early-voting rules, including a minimum period of 15 days to cast ballots early. Likewise, the commission should develop national standards for the number of poll workers staffing election sites per thousand registered voters. (Research on optimal staffing is scant.)
The commission also should demand an end to partisan election administrators. Better still, it should push states to adopt Wisconsin’s model: a nonpartisan election board made up of former judges.
The security and reliability of electronic voting is also a perennial concern. Most states require electronic voting machines to produce “paper trails.” Yet many states have no such requirement, creating the potential for inaccurate results and post-election recriminations. Paper trails should be required in all 50 states. States that use electronic voting machines should be required to audit results, comparing a small percentage of machine votes with paper records to be sure they match.
Military and civilian voters overseas continue to face hurdles to voting. The commission’s recommendations should include a call for expanded voter education to notify these voters of the services available to them. In addition, new Internet-based technologies can ensure that registration forms and ballots reach more overseas voters and that their ballots are returned on time.
A checklist of best practices for ballot design would help reduce the number of votes miscast or discarded due to voter confusion. The American Institute of Graphic Arts’ Design for Democracy campaign has shown how properly designed ballots can reduce voter confusion and aid those with limited vision or language skills.
Beyond such pragmatic recommendations, the commission should champion something more dramatic: a “grand bargain” to address fundamental problems in the election system. The central compromise would give Democrats their goal of improved ballot access in return for giving Republicans their own priority -- heightened ballot security.
To promote increased access, the commission should call for Election Day registration to be available in every state. That would ensure that no eligible voter is turned away for failing to navigate the complexities of the voter-registration system. Eleven states and the District of Columbia have already approved Election Day registration.
Other barriers to voting should likewise be removed. Expanded absentee voting would allow people who care for children or sick relatives to vote from home. In addition, acts of voter suppression, whether through intimidation or spreading misleading information, should be aggressively prosecuted. Those found guilty should face tough penalties.
The flip side of the deal is more stringent security at the ballot box. A national voter-identification requirement would address Republican fears that people who are ineligible to vote, such as undocumented immigrants, are casting ballots. If the commission proposes such a requirement, however, it must also establish the means by which citizens can readily obtain free ID, which should be available in any federal office building.
If the commission crafts this “grand bargain” right, it just might be able to unite the two parties behind major reform. If that proves elusive, as bipartisan reform has elsewhere, the commission can still make progress on smaller, pragmatic recommendations. It should be prepared to supply Congress and state legislatures with as much reform as they can handle.
In citing problems with the election system in his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama declared: “We can fix this, and we will.” Partisan politics may prove that wholesale declaration optimistic. But if the president’s commission does its job, voting in 2016 should be appreciably more efficient, and less frustrating, than it was for millions of Americans in 2012.
(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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