By Nia-Malika Henderson and Felicia Sonmez
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's proposed commission on electoral reform aimed at improving voting efficiency and reducing long wait times for voters is producing heated criticism from advocates on both the right and the left.
Some conservatives see the initiative as a federal overreach into an issue that is rightly the province of states, while some voting rights advocates say that the president's proposed commission is a too timid response to what they see as a huge problem.
"Setting up a commission is not a bold step; it is business as usual," said Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters. Critics of the commission say it doesn't match the severity of the problem. "The president could have done much better by pointing to real solutions, like that in legislation already introduced on Capitol Hill to require early voting, set limits on waiting times, provide for portable voter registration and set up secure online voter registration."
Conservatives said the commission infringes on local control of the voting process.
"I do not support the president's proposal to appoint yet another national commission to study solutions to the problem of long lines at polling places that seems to be confined to very few states," Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., said in a statement, adding that she is opposed to national mandates.
Former Federal Elections Commission official Hans von Spakovsky, a Bush administration Justice Department official who is a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote a blog post Thursday morning criticizing Obama's move. He argued that the average wait time nationally for voters during the 2012 election was only 14 minutes and that the country already has a bipartisan election commission, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
"Obama's commission may just be a stalking horse to implement liberals' latest partisan fantasies of automatic and election day voter registration — so-called reforms that will stifle real improvements and endanger the integrity of our elections," he wrote.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., said in an interview with CNSNews.com that Obama was playing political games.
"When the president talks about voting, he is focused on partisan advantage for the Democratic Party," Cruz said. "His Justice Department tragically has been the most partisan Justice Department this country has seen. They have repeatedly fought common-sense voter integrity policies like voter ID that serve, as the U.S. Supreme Court has said, to protect and ensure the integrity of our democratic system."
Obama first pushed the issue in his election-night victory speech, and he touched on it again in his inaugural address last month. And Tuesday night during his State of the Union address, he said: "When any Americans — no matter where they live or what their party — are denied that right simply because they can't wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals. That's why, tonight, I'm announcing a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America."
Obama highlighted the story of Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old Florida resident who waited in line for three hours to cast her ballot at her local library in North Miami.
Heading the commission will be the oddest of odd couples — Obama's former White House Counsel, Bob Bauer, and Ben Ginsberg, a top lawyer for the Republican Party who helped lead the 2000 recount efforts in Florida and served as Mitt Romney's lawyer during his White House run.
"There are plenty of Republicans who are suspicious of federal efforts in this area, but I'm glad Ben decided to do it," said Trevor Potter, who served as John McCain's general counsel in his two presidential bids. "Ben is not a miracle worker, but he has a good reputation and people will listen to the group. Assuming that both parties have the same interest of having the system work and voters being able to vote, then it shouldn't turn out to be as partisan as it would be in the middle of the election."
During the 2012 election, voter access emerged as a highly partisan issue, with Republicans in several states decreasing early voting hours and pushing identification requirements.
Liberals and progressives argued that such measures had the potential to disproportionately disenfranchise elderly, low-income and minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic.
More than a dozen states across the country revamped voting laws to curb voter fraud and voting irregularities and implemented identification laws, though the Justice Department blocked several of the laws in the months before Election Day, including in Pennsylvania.
Congressional Democrats have convened a Task Force on Election Reform, led by Rep. John B. Larson, Conn., aimed at producing legislation on voting rights and campaign-finance reform.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn, D-S.C., introduced the SIMPLE (Streamlined and Improved Methods at Polling Locations and Early Voting) Act. The bill would require each state to institute a 15-day early-voting period before Election Day and would impose a one-hour limit on the time voters must wait to cast their ballot.
Several House Democrats including Clyburn, Rep. John Lewis, Ga., and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Md., last month introduced the Voter Empowerment Act of 2013. The measure, which has 167 co-sponsors and which was originally introduced during the last Congress, would enact sweeping changes to the way elections are held, such as requiring each state to allow online voter registration and early voting, as well as permitting convicted criminals to vote after having completed their sentence. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is the lead sponsor of similar legislation in the Senate.
Several other voting-related bills have been introduced this Congress, including Rep. James Moran's, D-Va., Value Our Time Elections Act and Rep. Steve Cohen's, D-Tenn. John Tanner Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act. On the Senate side, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has introduced the Clean and Fair Elections Act, which has garnered 18 co-sponsors so far, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has introduced the LINE (Lines Interfere with National Elections) Act.
Action on the measures is unlikely in the Republican-led House or the Democratic-controlled Senate, however, and some voting rights advocates who have long wanted a high profile for the issue see the commission as a move in the right direction.
"I think the commission is something tangible and concrete that will help us move toward the goal of moving Congress toward national standards," said Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project. "Obama could have proposed a bill, but there is already a bill. We need to keep building public will toward fixing this, and I think the president is doing his part. The problem is Congress."
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott, R, announced a bipartisan review of his state's election laws after a long ballot and shortened voting window caused wait times of several hours.
Election law observers say states are experimenting with ways to make voting easier, including online voter registration and computerized databases that keep track of a voter's information when he moves.
"The challenge for the commission will be to make sure that the participants are going to approach this in a constructive and data-driven way. If it's ideological, the commission won't accomplish much and the states won't listen," said David Becker, director of election initiatives at Pew Charitable Trusts. "But if they bring together research focused people who are not looking at elections as how a winner is determined, but who will look at it as how our democracy works, then they are going to find that the states are going to be receptive to their recommended solutions."