Most of the work produced by Washington’s bipartisan-industrial complex ends up in the National Library of Forgotten and Ignored Bipartisan Reports, where it rests undisturbed for posterity. The 96-page report released Wednesday by President Barack Obama’s bipartisan commission on election reform deserves a better fate.
The Presidential Commission on Election Administration, appointed last year after many embarrassing reports about Election Day in 2012 — including the infamous story of the 102-year-old woman in Florida who had to wait three hours in line to vote — was led by a Republican and a Democrat. In tone and content, its report is so resolutely practical that it’s hard to imagine its recommendations stirring much debate, much less controversy.
It will, of course: Not all politicians want to make it easier for Americans to vote. The question, as it often is with such commissions, is whether there exists the political will to follow through. In that sense, the report’s main strength is also a weakness: None of its 19 main recommendations require the approval of a dysfunctional Congress or a distracted executive. All that’s needed is for local election officials to do their jobs better.
There’s no doubt they need to. The panel’s report makes clear that the many problems with the way Americans vote aren’t just the result of human error on Election Day. They also reflect the way the system is built. Here is its polite summary of that system’s flaws:
“The United States runs its elections unlike any other country in the world. Responsibility for elections is entrusted to local officials in approximately 8,000 different jurisdictions. In turn, they are subject to general oversight by officials most often chosen through a partisan appointment or election process. The point of contact for voters in the polling place is usually a temporary employee who has volunteered for one-day duty and has received only a few hours of training.”
In other words, if the goal was to build a voting system all but guaranteed to be a mess, it would look a lot like this one. Moreover, even within cash-starved state and city budgets, election administration tends to fall “toward the lower end of the scale of priorities,” as the report delicately puts it.
These failures have tangible consequences. One recent study found that the United States had the second-lowest voter turnout rate among developed nations while posting the fourth-greatest drop in turnout in the last three decades. When a group of people doesn’t vote — such as the poor, who don’t have many other options for influencing politicians — elected officials have little incentive to serve that group’s interests.
The great contribution of today’s report lies partly in listing the ways that elections can be run better. Its list of recommendations includes allowing more online voter registration; setting a goal of no more than a 30-minute wait to vote; expanding the use of early voting; hiring staff for their expertise, rather than just their party affiliation; and instituting training standards for poll workers.
These recommendations may seem obvious. That’s why the report’s second benefit is equally important: making clear that states already have the authority they need to make these changes. As the study notes, the problems “that hinder the efficient administration of elections are both identifiable and solvable.” The report includes dozens of concrete examples — how Delaware administers its voter and driver records efficiently, for example, and how restaurants manage long lines.
Not exactly the stuff of front-page headlines. What’s at stake here, however, is nothing less than how a government runs its elections, and how a democracy treats its citizens.