President Obama’s proposed commission on electoral reform, which seeks to improve voting efficiency and reduce long wait times for voters, is producing heated criticism from advocates on both the right and the left.
Some conservatives view the initiative as federal overreaching on an issue that is rightly the province of states, while some voting rights advocates say that the president’s proposed commission is a too-timid response to what they see as a huge problem.
“Setting up a commission is not a bold step; it is business as usual,” said Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters. Critics of the commission say it doesn’t match the severity of the problem. “The president could have done much better by pointing to real solutions, like that in legislation already introduced on Capitol Hill to require early voting, set limits on waiting times, provide for portable voter registration and set up secure online voter registration.”
Conservatives said the commission infringes on local control of the voting process.
“I do not support the president’s proposal to appoint yet another national commission to study solutions to the problem of long lines at polling places that seems to be confined to very few states,” Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-Mich.) said in a statement, adding that she is opposed to national mandates.
Hans von Spakovsky, who served in the George W. Bush administration as a Justice Department official and a member of the Federal Election Commission, and is now a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote a blog post Thursday morning criticizing Obama’s move. He argued that the average wait time nationally for voters during the 2012 election was only 14 minutes and that the country already has a bipartisan election panel, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
“Obama’s commission may just be a stalking horse to implement liberals’ latest partisan fantasies of automatic and election day voter registration — so-called reforms that will stifle real improvements and endanger the integrity of our elections,” he wrote.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said in an interview with CNSNews.com that Obama was playing political games.
“When the president talks about voting, he is focused on partisan advantage for the Democratic Party,” Cruz said. “His Justice Department tragically has been the most partisan Justice Department this country has seen. They have repeatedly fought common-sense voter integrity policies like voter ID that serve, as the U.S. Supreme Court has said, to protect and ensure the integrity of our democratic system.”
Obama first pushed the issue in his election-night victory speech, and he touched on it again in his inaugural address last month. And Tuesday night during his State of the Union address, he said: “When any Americans — no matter where they live or what their party — are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals. That’s why, tonight, I’m announcing a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America.”
Obama highlighted the story of Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old Florida resident who waited in line for three hours to cast her ballot at her local library in North Miami.
Heading the commission will be the oddest of odd couples — Obama’s former White House counsel, Bob Bauer, and Benjamin Ginsberg, a top lawyer for the Republican Party who helped lead the 2000 recount efforts in Florida and served as Mitt Romney’s lawyer during his White House run.
“There are plenty of Republicans who are suspicious of federal efforts in this area, but I’m glad Ben decided to do it,” said Trevor Potter, who served as John McCain’s general counsel in his two presidential bids. “Ben is not a miracle worker, but he has a good reputation, and people will listen to the group. Assuming that both parties have the same interest of having the system work and voters being able to vote, then it shouldn’t turn out to be as partisan as it would be in the middle of the election.”
During the 2012 campaign, voter access emerged as a highly partisan issue, with Republicans in several states reducing early voting hours and pushing identification requirements.
Liberals and progressives argued that such measures had the potential to disproportionately disenfranchise elderly, low-income and minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic.
More than a dozen states across the country revamped voting laws to curb voter fraud and voting irregularities and implemented identification laws, though the Justice Department blocked several of the laws in the months before Election Day, including in Pennsylvania.
Congressional Democrats have convened a Task Force on Election Reform, led by Rep. John B. Larson (Conn.), aimed at producing legislation on voting rights and campaign-finance reform.