We Need the President's Election Commission

One of the highlights of President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech this week was his recognition that our democracy demands that we share the sacred burden to protect the right to vote. By many accounts, we failed to protect this right for far too many of our fellow citizens during last November's election.

To take just one example, the Orlando Sentinel recently reported its analysis of the 2012 election, in which it concluded that long lines in Florida discouraged as many as 201,000 citizens from casting a ballot. Those lines, and the voters they discouraged, were undoubtedly exacerbated by Florida's decision to shrink access to early voting, cutting by nearly half the number of hours available for casting a ballot before Election Day.

Among those who endured Florida's treacherously long lines was Desilene Victor, a Haitian-born North Miami woman who listened to the president's speech from the first lady's box last Tuesday and who the president noted had waited more than three hours during early voting simply to cast her ballot. In fact, during the whole ordeal, Ms. Victor was forced to leave and return later in the day to try voting again. Ms. Victor's determination to vote ultimately prevailed, but her story generated its greatest appeal when the president announced she is 102 years old.

A little more than a year ago, in defense of the right to vote, many in the voting rights community rallied to the cause of Dorothy Cooper, then a 96-year-old resident of Chattanooga, who had been denied a voter photo ID under Tennessee's recently passed voter ID law. The linchpin excuse for obstructing Ms. Cooper's access to the ballot was that her birth certificate included only her maiden name and she was unable to produce her marriage certificate.

The stories of Desilene Victor and Dorothy Cooper tap our collective consciousness as citizens, not as Democrats or Republicans. These women, both born before women's suffrage, endured a time when our laws sanctioned their discrimination at the voting booth. We've made considerable progress in the past century, including passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (which, as reauthorized in 2006, is currently under scrutiny by the US Supreme Court), and despite our political party affiliation most of us agree we should not turn in the direction of those difficult days.

The right to vote is sacrosanct, even in our hyper-partisan, cable-news-inspired, and politically-segmented society. That's why the President's Commission on Election Administration -- co-chaired by Bob Bauer, a longtime Democratic elections attorney, and Ben Ginsberg, a longtime Republican elections attorney -- makes sense. This commission will help us move beyond our partisan differences and toward a simple and sacred ideal: that secure, convenient and accessible voting advances our democratic society.

Desilene Victor's determination to vote was applauded last Tuesday by the joint session of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike. With her story, and with his commission, the president has summoned us to our shared obligation to protect the right to vote. That is a protection we all owe to Ms. Victor and Ms. Cooper, and to our democracy.