News Column

Obama's Elections Panel Not Expected to Back Major Reforms

June 23, 2013
obama panel, election reform

WASHINGTON -- A commission named by President Barack Obama to address the problem of long lines on Election Day had its first meeting last week -- but few observers held out hope for major reform.

Its first session Friday lasted less than an hour and drew fewer than 50 people. And even its co-chair downplayed expectations.

"We will not be providing legislative recommendations," said Ben Ginsberg, an attorney for the Mitt Romney campaign tapped by Obama to co-chair the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration.

Instead, Ginsberg said the 10-member panel would be devising "best practices" to help states improve the efficiency of elections and registration while reducing wait times at the ballot box.

According to one estimate, about 3.9 percent of voters waited an hour or more to vote in the 2012 presidential election -- about 5 million out of the roughly 130 million voters who had their ballots counted. Delays were particularly acute in Florida, where tens of thousands stood in line for hours -- some for seven hours or longer.

The panel has until Dec. 21 to present recommendations to the White House, which could enact minor reform through executive order. But any major change likely would have to clear Congress, which has shown little capacity to do much lately.

And one election expert said that rather than pushing for major changes, the commission should take on the "unsexy" task of making sure localities can handle a crush of voters -- by recommending standards on the number of machines and poll workers, or by helping develop better models to forecast when certain polling places might get jammed and adjusting accordingly.

"I wouldn't be terribly expectant of anything big coming out of this," said Doug Chapin with the University of Minnesota. "But it's important not to confuse big with importance."

Friday's meeting was devoted to a presentation of research into potential causes of lines, including overly long ballots and polling places that have too few voting machines and poll workers.

Another possible reason: limited options to vote early.

One factor cited for Florida's problems in 2012 was a restrictive "election reform" measure passed by the Legislature in 2011 that cut the number of early-voting days from 14 to eight -- including the elimination of early voting on the last Sunday before Election Day, sometimes described as "Souls to Polls" day because of the high turnout of black voters after church.

The Legislature undid that restriction this year, allowing county elections supervisors to hold up to 14 days of early voting while expanding the number of locations that officials can use for early voting.

Election-reform advocates in Florida said the presidential commission could help with other improvements -- if Congress agreed.

Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said she'd like voter registration made easier and less restrictive -- including Election Day voter registration, allowed in nine states. She also advocated for national standards that would protect voter-registration groups like hers.

Last year, Macnab's group was one of several that won a federal court order invalidating a restriction in the 2011 law that forced them to submit registration forms within two days of signing up a new voter, a drastic cut from the previous deadline of 10 days.

The panel should help "Florida voters [from] feeling like they are looking over their shoulders to watch to see their voting rights are being tampered with," Macnab said.

The commission's next public hearing is scheduled for Friday in Coral Gables. The commission also intends to visit three other presidential battleground states: Colorado, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Its budget is about $700,000. or 202-824-8222


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