By: Corey S. Peterson
Waiting for five, six, seven hours in line no longer means that you’re waiting to buy the latest iPhone or blockbuster movie tickets. It means you’re waiting to exercise a fundamental political right- the right to vote. President Obama in his 2012 acceptance speech noted that we have to “fix that” (http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-11-07/politics/35506456_1_applause-obama-sign-romney-sign) and in his recent State of the Union Address he proclaimed that the voting experience in America “definitely needs improvement” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/state-of-the-union-2013-president-obamas-address-to-congress-transcript/2013/02/12/d429b574-7574-11e2-95e4-6148e45d7adb_story.html).
Luckily both the President and Congress have taken recent steps to fix the problem. In his State of the Union address, President Obama introduced the formation of a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration will be co-chaired by Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsburg. Bauer served as general counsel for the Obama campaign and also successfully sued Ohio, which forced the state to restore early voting rights for all voters. Ginsburg is a top lawyer for the Republican Party who helped lead the recount efforts for George W. Bush in 2000 and is former counsel to Romney’s 2012 campaign. The White House has said that the commission will focus on “common-sense, non-partisan solutions” and “develop recommendations for state and local election officials to reduce waiting times at the polls and improve all citizens’ voting experience” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/12/presidential-voting-commission-chairs-obama-romney_n_2673675.html?utm_hp_ref=politics).
In response to President Obama’s announcement, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law issued a statement noting that the President’s “appointment of a new bipartisan commission is an important step” (http://www.brennancenter.org/press-releases/voting-reform-agenda). The Brennan Center also released its own proposal earlier this month outlining three suggestions for modernizing the administration of our elections: set minimum standards for polling place access, provide early voting during a fixed national time period, and modernize voter registration.
However, not all voting rights advocates are thrilled with the President’s announcement. The League of Women Voters released a statement last Tuesday criticizing the creation of the commission, stating that they were “surprised and disappointed that the President did not suggest bold action to ensure that every American citizen can exercise the vote” and Elizabeth MacNamara, President of the League, called the commission “business as usual” (http://www.lwv.org/press-releases/sotu-disappointed-president-obama-failed-call-bold-action-voting-rights).
Other activists have suggested that Obama reactivate the now defunct Election Assistance Commission (EAC), whose four seats have remained vacant since 2011. The EAC was established by HAVA in 2002 and is a bipartisan commission created to develop guidelines to met HAVA requirements and serve as a “clearinghouse” for election administration information.
The only way to combat the issues plaguing our election system is to make access to voter registration easier by employing on-line portals, requiring states to implement measures ensuring that voters do not wait in long lines to vote, allowing early voting and vote by mail, and providing for same-day voter registration. These changes have already been proposed by voting rights advocates, election lawyers, and legislators across the country. The President’s commission is therefore unnecessary- we don’t need more talk of ideas and solutions, instead we need immediate implementation of those ideas and solutions.
Luckily we do not need to rely on the President’s Commission or a revival of the EAC for immediate solutions. A few members of Congress have recently introduced several pieces of legislation aimed at fixing the problem:
- Rep. John Lewis of Georgia introduced the Empowerment Act of 2013 (H.R. 12) on January 23rd. The bill amends the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) to require each state to make online voter registration available. The bill also establishes other initiatives to promote voter registration like same day voter pre-registration. Finally, the bill amends the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to require each state to allow early voting and to facilitate voting by mail. (S.123 introduced by Senator Gillibrand of New York provides for similar measures).
- Rep. Susan Davis of California introduced the Universal Right to Vote by Mail Act of 2013 (H.R. 376), which amends HAVA to allow all voters the option to vote by mal in federal elections.
- Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota introduced the Same Day Registration Act of 2013 (H.R. 280), which amends HAVA to require states with a voter registration requirement to make same-day voter registration/revisions of registrant’s information available on election day or on the days of early voting.
- Rep. James Moran of Virginia introduces the Value Our Time Elections Act (H.R. 289), which requires states to submit a plan to Congress describing the steps they will take to ensure an equitable wait time for all voters and a wait time of less than one hour at any polling place in the state for a federal election.
While the aforementioned bills are certainly a step in the right direction passage is unlikely without bipartisan support. Without immediate congressional action, we cannot expect the lines to get any shorter or the voting process to get any easier for the 2014 mid-term elections.