WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's creation of an independent Presidential Commission on Election Administration to address voting problems has sparked debate among voting rights activists.
The commission, to be chaired by Bob Bauer, former general counsel for the Obama campaign, and Ben Ginsberg, former election lawyer for Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, is tasked with finding “common-sense, non-partisan solutions” to “reduce waiting times at the polls and improve all citizens’ voting experience,” the White House said Tuesday night.
The commission's formation, announced by Obama during his State of the Union address, follows previous comments from the president about long lines at polls. He remarked during his November election victory speech, “By the way, we have to fix that."
Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, praised the announcement, calling it “an important step” to improving voters’ experience at the polls.
“The president spoke powerfully of the need to improve the way we run elections in America," Waldman said in a statement. “We urge the commission to think boldly, and we urge the Congress to do its part by enacting minimum national standards to modernize elections.”
Critics said Obama's idea isn't bold enough. They said the commission, focused on Election Day rather than systemic problems, will do little to bring true reform to the election process.
Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters, said that she was disappointed in the president for failing to take “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,” MacNamara said in a statement. “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.”
Administration officials pointed out this week that the commission is part of a larger plan to reform the election process. Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez told The Huffington Post in an interview last week before the commission was announced that options on the table include supporting election reform legislation, implementing regulations and taking other executive actions.
Obama should reactivate the Election Assistance Commission established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 following the 2000 election debacle, activists said. The four commissioner seats have been vacant since 2011.
Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said repairing the commission may restore its purpose of protecting every eligible voter's right to vote.
“There’s a federal agency that’s actually supposed to be providing administrative support to state elections officials, and funding,” Weiser told The Huffington Post. “That agency is currently languishing without any commissioners, any active commissioners at all. So there need to be nominations, they need to be confirmed.”
A poll found that 88 percent of Americans who voted in the 2012 election support national election standards.
“Regardless of whether Congress passes something, I do think that the executive -- and the president in particular -- have a very strong role in promoting a national solution,” Weiser said. “Elevating the problem and talking about national solutions as president -- regardless of whether they pass -- can have a significant impact in bringing action about on the state level.”
This article has been updated to make clear that Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez was interviewed last week, before the State of the Union address.