President Obama embraced the cause of voting rights in his State of the Union speech, which he called “our most fundamental right as citizens,” and spotlighted 102-year-old Desiline Victor, a naturalized Haitian immigrant from Miami who waited three hours—and had to make two trips—to cast a ballot. He also proposed a new voting commission headed by lawyers from the Obama and Romney campaigns.
Here’s what Obama said:
We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote. When any American—no matter where they live or what their party—are denied that right because they can’t afford to wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals. So, tonight, I’m announcing a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America, and it definitely needs improvement. I’m asking two longtime experts in the field, who, by the way, served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney’s campaign, to lead it. We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy.
Unfortunately, Obama’s solution was less than inspiring. Another election commission is a pretty tepid response to the magnitude of the voting problems we face. And Romney campaign lawyer Ben Ginsberg is a puzzling choice to be its co-chair.
For over two decades, Ginsberg has been a top lawyer for the Republican Party—the same party, you may recall, that has led the effort to restrict voting rights of late. Ginsberg helped lead the 2000 recount effort for George W. Bush. He was forced to resign from the Bush campaign in 2004 after it was revealed that he was also advising the vile Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In 2006, Ginsberg said, “Just like really with the Voting Rights Act, Republicans have some fundamental philosophical difficulties with the whole notion of Equal Protection.” And in 2012, he was counsel to the Romney campaign when it absurdly claimed that the Obama campaign was trying to suppress military voters by pushing for early voting for all Ohioans. Does that sound like the kind of guy you want leading a “non-partisan” voting commission?
More than likely, this commission will go nowhere. After all, commissions in Washington tend to be where good ideas go to die. Following the 2000 election, the Help America Vote Act created the Election Assistance Commission to help states run their elections. It’s become the “zombie voting commission,” according to The Washington Post; it has no commissioners, executive director or general counsel, and hasn’t met publicly since 2011. Republicans have repeatedly blocked the appointment of new commissioners and tried to abolish the agency; Democrats have done little to resurrect it.
There’s not much the Obama administration can do on election reform without Congress. So here’s a modest proposal: before Congress tries to pass sweeping election reform, how about taking the baby step of getting its own election commission back up and running? And hopefully Obama, in exchange for appointing Ginsberg to his voting commission, can extract a promise from the GOP lawyer to support the expansion, not restriction, of voting rights.
UPDATE: Voting rights groups appear split on the voting commission. The Brennan Center for Justice called it "an important step, focusing on improving the experience of voters." But the normally mild-mannered League of Women Voters sharply criticized the idea: "we were surprised and disappointed that the President did not suggest bold action to ensure that every American citizen can exercise the right to vote. Setting up a commission is not a bold step; it is business as usual. 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.”