President Obama signed an executive order last week creating the nine member Presidential Commission on Election Administration, a move he signaled as a priority during the State of the Union speech.
The Commission, co-chaired by Bob Bauer, who was Obama’s lead counsel in his 2012 campaign, and Ben Ginsberg, who held the same role in the Romney camp is tasked with studying polling locations, voter access, voting machine technology and much more.
The executive order defines the mission of the panel as follows:
“The Commission shall identify best practices and otherwise make recommendations to promote the efficient administration of elections in order to ensure that all eligible voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots without undue delay, and to improve the experience of voters facing other obstacles in casting their ballots, such as members of the military, overseas voters, voters with disabilities, and voters with limited English proficiency.”
Though a very small percentage of polling locations experienced delays on Election Day 2012, locations with arguably the highest turnout in the nation had few problems to note. Minneapolis, for example, had some polling locations with more than 100% turnout, yet Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie reported the day ran smoothly. Ritchie said of the estimated 3 million people statewide (MN had an estimated 76% voter turnout), “I think people had a really good experience.”
The debate about long lines and extensive wait times rears its head every few years, but the math simply doesn’t add up. Following the 2010 census, in accordance with a law enacted by Congress in 1975, polling locations were reviewed in each state and redistricting took place. Each Congressional district, state senate district and other districts were evaluated and potentially changed, and then approved by the states. The redistricted lines are based on census numbers so that each polling location has approximately the same number of residents, and therefore, approximately the same number of eligible voters.
Though the President’s new commission intends to study and recommend changes related to the “number, location, management, operation, and design of polling places,” “ballot simplicity and voter education,” and the “efficient management of voter rolls and poll books,” there is no mention of any attempt to dissuade voter fraud. In fact, the stated purpose of the commission is to “improve the experience of all voters.” As we have learned in the last few election cycles, not all voters abide by election laws.
Each state has authority over its election practices including ballots, technology, and polling locations, but the recommendations of this new commission are “intended to serve as a best practices guide for state and local election officials…” according to Josh Earnest, Deputy Press Secretary for the White House. That could prove valuable to activists seeking to make voting controlled by the executive branch.
Though the commission won’t have authority to directly override state election rules, its recommendations could conceivably be used as a tool by the Department of Justice to use when persuading judges to impose changes at the state level. The President is essentially giving credibility to a group of nine of his friends to create a “study” that will later be seen as the authority on election best practices. What Secretary of State, governor, state legislature, or judge will have the instinct to deny recommendations by this panel of experts?
The commission is required to submit its final report 6 months following its first public meeting. It will have staff, though none of the nine members will have a salary. All members will be allowed reimbursement of travel expenses.