Panel Urges State Fixes for Election Snags

Panel Urges State Fixes for Election Snags
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Americans shouldn't have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote during elections, a special commission told President Obama on Wednesday, noting that no single solution will magically fix voting delays and technological challenges considered a sure bet in the future.

On Election Day 2012, numerous problems in Florida and around the country forced more than 5 million voters to stand in lines for an hour or longer, and another 5 million had to wait 30 to 60 minutes. Even early voters had to cool their heels.

To tackle such problem, Obama last summer tasked a bipartisan group to study election procedures and snags. On Wednesday, he hailed the suggestions he received, even as some of the states’ thorniest election controversies -- voter identification demands and electronic, online balloting alternatives, for instance -- were not the purview of Obama’s group.

“A lot of the recommendations they've made are common sense,” the president said as he sat with commissioners in the Roosevelt Room on a frigid January day. “They are ones that can be embraced by all of us. Importantly, my understanding is a lot of the commission recommendations are directed not simply to Congress or the federal government, but rather to the state and local jurisdictions who are largely responsible for our elections.”

The two co-chairs of the president’s panel -- attorneys who represented Obama in his 2008 campaign and Mitt Romney in 2012 -- said many recommendations in the report can be rapidly adopted by states and counties, including the panel’s calls for online voter registration, simpler ballot construction, and better placement of and planning for polling places.

But an elections emergency looms just over the horizon, they warned, prompted by outdated and faulty voting machines that should be replaced with next-generation technologies that will cost state officials precious resources.

“People need to start looking at machine voting equipment -- a crisis that’s coming within the next decade,” said co-chair Ben Ginsberg, who was national counsel for Romney’s campaign and provided key legal assistance to George W. Bush’s campaign when the 2000 Florida recount landed before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ginsberg and his colleague, former Obama White House Counsel Robert Bauer, spoke to reporters outside a snowy White House before heading to warmer television studios to explain their findings during interviews on the evening news.

“This commission took its guidance from the voters,” Bauer said, “how they live, what they expect, how those expectations are evolving -- and if we use that as our guideline, then there are some very, very practical, intelligent things that we can do to improve the American voting experience.”

The 112-page report makes no direct recommendations for congressional or presidential action, which independent voter-advocacy groups said made sense.

“For good reason, this state-focused report did not reference the protection of constitutional rights that only Congress can provide,” the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 rights groups, said in a written statement.

“It is vital that states administer their elections fairly and openly, but only Congress can ensure the right to vote for Americans nationwide by passing the bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment Act,” president and CEO Wade Henderson said.

Nevertheless, commissioners said the federal government may be called on, as it was in 2002, to provide additional resources that could help replace aging voting machines. Some of the newest are now more than a decade old.

“Few jurisdictions have budgeted to purchase new voting systems, often at a cost of millions of dollars,” the report noted. “Without a comparable infusion of federal funds, jurisdictions will be on their own to replace aging machines or to alter the voting process so as to serve more voters with fewer machines.”

Even if states and jurisdictions had the money to invest in cutting-edge technology to help voters cast their ballots, the companies that manufacture voting machines are slow to embrace marketable new innovations, the report noted. That’s because the firms that make voting machines face differing state requirements and resistance from tight-fisted officials who object to buying today’s machines, which get rolled out of storage every two or four years.

The commissioners think the future of voting technology might rest with the kinds of adaptive and multi-use equipment and software Americans know and states might one day embrace, such as iPads, which are mobile, have touch screens, and can enlarge text for all readers. But that’s a leap that won’t occur before November’s midterm elections, and might not sort itself out before the 2016 presidential election.

The option to cast ballots online remains a question mark. “We did also take a look at online voting and found that the security concerns now are just too great. It’s just not ripe,” Ginsberg said.

Commissioners, who convened four public hearings around the country, gently addressed public complaints that supervisors of elections are often politically selected partisans who are rarely expert in election administration, a deficit that has contributed to poor planning and irregularities that undercut public confidence in the election process. The commissioners said a professional field of public administration is developing to train state and local personnel to manage the logistics and legal requirements of elections, and they recommended that politically elected and selected officials nationwide turn to such nonpartisan experts in the future.

As part of the commission’s report, its website included other types of help officials can tap as they see fit. “The website presents two sets of tools that election administrators can use,” the commissioners said. One is designed to reduce or avoid polling place congestion, and the other is to help jurisdictions implement online voter registration. The tools are archived for the future, preserved as the commission disbands.

Independent groups are offering help, too. Rock the Vote announced Wednesday that at no cost, it is making available field-tested tools election administrators can use to implement online registration, as well as a white paper to explain a new approach to online voter registration that would be accessible beyond a government website.

The commissioners in their report endorsed Rock the Vote’s approach.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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