The President’s Commission on Election Administration just released its report, and it offers something we don’t often see in policymaking circles these days: sanity. The report provides a knowledgeable, balanced overview of what ails our system, and its recommendations are spot-on.
No good deed goes unpunished in Washington, of course. Indeed, I’d be willing to make two predictions. First, the naysayers are going to tell you the Commission should have “done more” by weighing in on controversial issues like voter ID or the Voting Rights Act. Second, most reporters are going to miss why this report matters as much as it does.
If tomorrow’s papers trumpet complaints that the Report doesn’t offer any bipartisan “grand bargains” on voter ID or the Voting Rights Act, toss ‘em. Grand bargains can’t be had in this political climate. The Commissioners wisely focused on getting something done. And their recommendations are going to make a real difference to real people. I’d take that deal any day.
Here’s another reason to toss your paper tomorrow: if the paper buries the story on the back page because the reporter couldn’t figure out what makes the Commission’s recommendations so important. To be fair, the Commission’s proposals are not the stuff of which reporters’ dreams are made. But they are the reforms we need. As I predicted, they are low-key, deeply pragmatic, easily implemented, and assiduously nonpartisan proposals. The Commission focused on technical and technocratic solutions to the problems we saw in 2012, emphasizing a customer-service model that reflects not just the influence of the Fortune 500 CEOs who served as commissioners, but basic common sense. Even more impressively, the report reflects a deep knowledge of both cutting-edge social science work and the day-to-day realities of election administration.
Why would such a technical, even technocratic report matter to everyday Americans? First, it is going to help make the invisible election — the problems that journalists rarely report and voters rarely see — visible in a way they’ve never been before. For instance, almost no one outside of the election administration community was aware that we are nearing the crisis point for the machines purchased in the wake of the Help American Vote Act. Now every policymaker is on notice that a Bush v. Gore II lurks on the horizon, which means that they will be on the hook if and when the next disaster strikes. As I noted in my book on our election system, one of the reasons we have such a shoddy voting system is that election problems are invisible to voters and policymakers, at least in the absence of a recount crisis. We can’t fix what we can’t see. Thanks to the Commission, we can now see a lot more than we could before.
Second, in today’s polarized environment, most election reforms are either impossible to pass or so trivial that they won’t make a difference. The reforms proposed by the commission are both likely to succeed and likely to matter. The Commission, for instance, has a multipronged strategy for fixing our broken registration system. An astounding 2.2 million people couldn’t vote on Election Day in 2008 due to registration problems, with another 5.7 million encountering problems that had to be resolved in advance of the election. The Commission gets it, which is why so many of its proposals are devoted to the issue. And they are wise proposals. Online registration, for instance, isn’t just more accurate, it’s far more cost effective. Cleaning up voter rolls is essential and an issue on which people on both sides of the aisle agree. Integrating voter registration and state DMV’s will make the Moter-Voter Act something that it’s never been: a success. I’m often at conferences where people go on and on about amending the Constitution to create a right to vote. We forget, however, that one of the essential guarantees of a right to vote is an election system that works. That’s what the Commission is trying to achieve.
Third, this report is as likely to move reform forward as it is to help us identify what reform ought to move forward. We often think that voting reform comes from outside of the election system — from rules imposed by legislators or oversight imposed by reformers. But the most important levers of change are election administrators themselves. If election administrators have a strong set of professional norms, agreed-upon best practices, and the technical capacity (and resources) to anticipate and fix problems in advance, there will be a lot less for legislators and reform groups to do. The problem is that it’s very hard to develop professional norms or technical capacity in our election system. For reasons I discuss in my book, most of the transmission mechanisms for diffusing professional norms and best practices don’t exist in the elections arena.
The commission will help remedy that problem. It’s not just that the report will provide a focal point for reform. The Commissioners also did a lot of smart things to make sure their recommendations stick. They don’t just identify goals in the abstract, for instance, but provide concrete examples of where those best practices are working in practice. Want to improve your DMV-registration transmission system? Take a look at what Delaware and Michigan have been doing. Want to clean up your roles? Talk to the folks at Pew about its ‘ERIC’ system. Want to learn how to notify voters about wait times? Call your peers in Orange County or Travis County. The Commission even provides baselines where appropriate. As I’ve written elsewhere, baselining drives reform. That’s why it’s crucial that the Commissioners unanimously agreed that no one should wait in line for more than 30 minutes to vote. The report gives election administrators — and, more importantly, the people who fund them — a realistic and concrete performance baseline that will do more for accountability than all the editorials that were written about long lines in the wake of the 2012 election.
Finally, the Commission just doesn’t just give election administrators yet another a “to do” list. Unlike any commission I can remember, the President’s Commission has given reformers the tools they need to do what the Commission is urging them to do. Better yet, election administrators will have every incentive to take advantage of those tools, and that’s not just because they are useful. Election administrators all dread the perfect storm — the disastrous election where they end up in the papers because of something beyond their control. The management tools provided by the Presidential Commission are a godsend. They don’t just give administrators capacity they now lack (after all, how many election administrators can afford to hire the experts who created these programs)? They also provide a “shield” for election administrators should a problem arise because these tools have been “blessed” by the Presidential Commission.
So you be the judge. Would you rather have had a Presidential Commission opining on the need for a “fundamental reordering” of our democracy, offering a “bipartisan” compromise that no partisans would ever pass in this climate, or, worst of all, trotting out the liberals’ list of pet reform projects? Or would you rather have a Commission that did the legwork necessary to understand the issues and offered a series of sane, sensible-center, and eminently practical solutions to what ails our election system? The first clearly would have pleased the starry-eyed reformers and made big headlines. The second, however, is actually going to make a difference.