Voting reform could end national disgrace

Published 1:00 pm Saturday, March 2, 2013

“Obama’s proposed voting commission under partisan fire from both sides.”

That recent headline in The Washington Post is hardly a surprise. Virtually every reasonable idea in the capital these days draws partisan fire from both sides. But if the extremes are agitated, the proposal probably has merit, and that’s true for the voting commission.

As outlined by President Barack Obama last week in his State of the Union address, the commission will recommend remedies for a true national scandal: the onerous difficulties encountered by Americans who simply want to exercise their right to vote. A report by the Brennan Center for Justice described the scene last November this way:

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“Exceptionally long lines were not isolated to a single city or state … In several polling places in Florida and Virginia, voters were still casting ballots at midnight, long after the presidential election had been called. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, election observers reported that long lines forced people to walk away without voting.”

In a brilliant stroke, the White House convinced two of the nation’s leading experts on election law, Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg, to head the panel. Bauer is a Democrat who advised Team Obama, and Ginsberg is a Republican who worked for Mitt Romney’s campaign. They know all the tricks, and how they can be fixed.

Normally, we’re not big fans of one more commission. But the issue of voting elicits such passionately partisan views that an independent and credible review of what ails the system could be quite useful. And the moment is right. As Dan Pfeiffer, a senior White House adviser, told The New York Times: “Election reform is always hard to do. But second-term presidents may be the only people who can do something like this, because they will never be on the ballot again.”

In a particularly wrongheaded strategy, liberals have attacked the commission because Ginsberg has a long history of working with Republicans on election issues. The Daily Kos website even used a particularly vile obscenity to describe Ginsberg, who is widely respected in Washington legal circles. (He’s a law partner of Cokie’s brother.)

But then the website indicts its own logic by conceding, “It is … hard to see exactly what the administration can accomplish in the realm of election reform without a willing Congress.” Well, yeah. We have often accused conservatives of not being able to count, but liberals seem to have the same blind spot. Since Republicans control the House, it’s essential to have someone from the GOP — like Ginsberg — front and center in the reform effort.

The conservative critique of the commission was expressed by Jason Gant, South Dakota secretary of state, who argued: “We don’t want to turn over the running of our elections to some bureaucrats in Washington. We want to keep that at the local level with local elected officials.”

Fair enough; Washington rules are often rigid and wasteful. But those “exceptionally long lines” demonstrate that many states have failed their own citizens. And voting is such a basic right that federal intervention is justified when that right is being degraded.

In Florida alone, more than 200,000 citizens may have been discouraged from voting by interminable delays, according to Ohio State professor Theodore Allen. Another election expert, professor Daniel Smith of the University of Florida, adds that minority voters “bore disproportionately the long lines that we all witnessed.”

That’s a poll tax. That’s a disgrace. And in Florida and other states, the delays were at least partly deliberate, the result of a concerted attempt by conservative cadres to pass voter ID laws and other measures that actually made it harder, not easier, to vote. The authors say they were trying to prevent fraud, but their explanation is, well, a fraud, because electoral misconduct is negligible. The real reason: They were trying to prevent minorities, who tend to back Democrats, from voting.

Now there are small signs of progress. In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott has backed a reform package that would extend early voting days and expand the number of polling places. The measure passed a committee of the state legislature on a unanimous bipartisan vote.

That’s exactly the sort of practical innovation the new commission should be looking at. Also on its plate: modernizing voter registration procedures to take advantage of online databases, and urging states to upgrade voting machines and hire more poll workers.

The extremes are wrong. The commission is worth trying. The right to vote is meaningless if you have to wait hours to exercise it.

(Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at