Over the weekend – a little more than three years after its initial release – the report of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA), and the rest of its work, was no longer available online after the new Administration decided to remove it from its home at supporttthevoter.gov.
The removal of the PCEA materials comes at a time when the White House is increasingly signalling that it will take steps to re-examine the 2016 election for evidence of fraud, despite no credible evidence that such fraud existed anywhere other than isolated cases, if at all. That’s unfortunate, because the PCEA is the kind of wide-ranging, bipartisan and thorough effort that any attempt to understand the American voting system needs.
The United States’ electoral system has always been imperfect — a work in progress. And yet the health of our democracy depends on the quality of our elections. All over the country, we entrust local officials to run elections as smoothly as possible. In fact, we depend on these officials to oversee more than 8,000 election jurisdictions nationwide — verifying the eligibility of voters, designing the ballots, and counting the votes.
The decentralized administration of elections means there are always new challenges to be addressed and new opportunities for improvement. It is for this reason that the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) was established by an Executive Order on March 28, 2013, with the goal of confronting problems and institutionalizing processes that allow for improvement.
After an extensive six-month inquiry, the bipartisan PCEA, comprised of experts and practitioners, issued The American Voting Experience report, which stated: “the problems hindering efficient administration of elections are both identifiable and solvable.” In the report, members of the PCEA unanimously agreed on a set of best practices and recommendations they hoped would focus institutional energy on a select number of important policy changes, while spawning experimentation among the thousands of local officials who shared similar concerns.
Our new report highlights the progress made in several areas since the PCEA recommendations were released, notably in the areas of voter registration, access to voting, polling place management, and voting technology.
MORE from the press release:
A bipartisan effort to shorten voting lines and improve how elections are administered has yielded major progress in both red and blue states, according to a report released today by the Democracy Fund. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) was established by Executive Order in 2013 to identify best practices in election administration and improve the voting experience. President Obama named his former White House Counsel Bob Bauer, and Ben Ginsberg, National Counsel to Mitt Romney’s Presidential Campaign, to identify problems and present potential solutions for future elections.
“The work being done around the country to implement the bipartisan recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration are a true sign of what is possible when people work together to solve problems,” said Adam Ambrogi, the Director of the Democracy Fund’s Elections Program. “We applaud the election administrators from both political parties who have adopted these recommendations to reduce lines at the polls, expand early voting, and make it easier to register to vote.”
The PCEA first released a report on best practices and recommendations to modernize the American electoral system over two years ago—including recommendations to increase access to online voter registration, expand early and absentee voting, modernize voting machines, and promote best practices for election administrators and states to follow. The Democracy Fund believes there is value in continuing to measure its progress and promote bipartisan reforms in the future.
After interviewing dozens of state and national election officials, the Democracy Fund uncovered the following progress on the PCEA’s recommendations. Officials say the PCEA has helped:
- Double the number of states that have approved online voter registration to 38, plus the District of Columbia.
- Expand the number of states that share information with each other and perform outreach to eligible but unregistered voters, such as the ERIC program, to 21 states, plus the District of Columbia.
- Introduce or increase early voting in five states—including a new ten-day early vote program in Massachusetts and a new two-week early vote program in Rhode Island. There are still 13 states in which early voting is not available. As more information becomes available, early voting is likely to take root in these remaining states.
- Spur recommendations for improving the voting process for military and Americans abroad that are now being considered by multiple states.
- Reveal factors contributing to lengthy polling place wait times for voters in over a dozen jurisdictions.
Innovative state programs that have come out of the PCEA report include:
- In Ohio, Secretary of State Jon Husted is tackling wait times to vote, and now requires that counties provide detailed plans for mitigating wait times in any polling place that did not meet the PCEA 30-minute wait time standard in the 2012 general election.
- In Chicago, the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Chicago Board of Elections partnered to recruit and manage a corps of community and four-year college students from Cook County schools to work the polls on Election Day. The wildly successful program increased bilingual support for voters, reduced transmission times, and resulted in higher civic participation among students. Similar programs have now been adopted in Rhode Island and California.
- Alabama passed a bill allowing officials to use ePollbooks in polling places, incorporating new technology to make the check-in process easy for voters and for poll workers. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill expressed the usefulness of the PCEA report in informing legislators on the value of this type of technology in the polling place.
- New Mexico appropriated $12 million for the purchase of new voting equipment for each of New Mexico’s 33 counties. Voters began casting ballots on the new equipment in the November 2014 election. The improvement was essential—before the switch, Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver reported a high failure rate for memory cards.
“At a time when the issue of cyber security is all over the news, it’s important to note that across the country election administrators are doing the work to make our voting easy, secure, and effective for eligible voters,” saidJoe Goldman, President of the Democracy Fund. “Electronic voting machines aren’t run via the internet—they’re run by our hardworking election officials. So much of this fear mongering we’ve seen in recent weeks is more about headlines than reality.”
Both elections officials and advocates interviewed by the Democracy Fund report that the PCEA was very useful in defining policy agendas and advancing pro-voter initiatives. While we know that there will be hitches in the 2016 election process, the right question to ask in those places is: Did they take PCEA seriously? As the 2016 presidential election fast approaches, the Democracy Fund recommends further action as a result of this report—including a challenge to all jurisdictions to quickly adopt PCEA recommendations that have increased voting access in so many states.
My major disagreement with the two critiques is the apparent assumption that the outcome of next year’s presidential election will matter in the ongoing fights over election policy.
First of all, the federal government has little if any influence over state and election laws; while renewal/revision of the Voting Rights Act in the wake of the Shelby County case would certainly re-establish Washington’s limited presence, the truth of the matter is that registration and voting are still almost exclusively the province of state and local governments. The next President (whoever s/he may be) and the 115th Congress will almost certainly be a constant source of debate over these issues, but experience suggests progress and impact will be minimal if any. It will also depend heavily on the outcome of state elections which may or may not be affected by what happens in the presidential campaign.
Second, even if the federal government could make those kinds of changes (which I highly doubt), it’s extremely unlikely that Secretary Clinton, if she does enter the White House in January 2017, is going to have the kind of Congressional majorities necessary to make good on the changes she suggests. If she doesn’t, you can bet that the GOP opposition will be hard-pressed to concede on election policy given the sharpness of her critiques.
That said, I readily admit that reasonable people can and do disagree about the role campaigns (and campaign rhetoric) play in the policy realm. I have said time and again on this blog that I am an election geek, not a political junkie, and so it isn’t surprising that I would favor quiet bipartisan progress over aggressive partisan rhetoric. But I can see why people who favor a more partisan tack would approve of that approach – and we will just have to agree to disagree.
But there was one other component of both the Salon and Washington Monthly pieces that I think is so wrong it led me to yell at my computer screen.
Hasen tries to prove there’s a relevant bloc of moderate Republicans in state governments by citing a report that came out of a presidential commission. If you know much about presidential commissions — which are often established in order to stall for time until the media stops paying attention — you know that this is exceedingly weak tea. It’s weaker still once you know that the moderate Republican on the commission was an elite lawyer who served on the Mitt Romney campaign.Washington Monthly:
Hasen mentions the bipartisan “Lines Commission” appointed by President Obama and its worthy recommendations. But the very reason so many people think HRC is taking a stronger position than Obama on this subject is that the “Lines Commission” report vanished without a single trace.[emphasis in both passages is mine]
With all due respect to Mssrs. Isquith and Kilgore, dismissing the Presidential Commission on Election Administration as “weak tea” that “vanished without a single trace” does unnecessary violence to the facts in service of an otherwise valid opinion.
1. The Salon piece seems to suggest the PCEA is invalid because of the involvement of prominent GOP lawyer Ben Ginsberg – but it completely overlooks (or doesn’t tell readers) that the other co-chair was prominent Democratic lawyer Bob Bauer AND that their leadership was designed to bring both parties to the table;
2. Washington Monthly’s characterization of PCEA as the “Lines Commission” (which a quick Google search suggests first appeared in the New Yorker in January 2014 and then not again until this week’s column) completely misses the boat on the purpose of the Commission – while its genesis was the long lines during the 2012 elections, its report (and a year before that, its charge in the White House executive order) was much more far-ranging than just how long people waited to vote;
3. Moreover, the record already shows that the PCEA neither stalled for time nor vanished without a trace – indeed, as we’ve seen across the nation, the Commission’s full-throated bipartisan endorsement of online voter registration has been cited by both parties in 2014 and 2015, with the result that a majority of states now either have or are implementing OVR – a huge change from the status quo ante PCEA.
The bottom line? The PCEA worked – not by deflecting attention, stalling for time or serving as a cover for someone’s partisan agenda. It worked because elections are already better across America because of the Commission’s report and findings – and the continued work of Commissioners long after their formal service expired.
In short, if you think Rick Hasen and I are wrong about our frustration with a partisan tack on election reform, that’s fine – political junkies and election geeks have different areas of emphasis (or em-FA-sis, as my grandmother liked to say) and we’ll have to disagree. There are lots of things to dislike about the current state of election policy and we can all hope that things will improve, whether through political change or bipartisan grunt work.
But you’re not entitled to your own facts – the PCEA was and is a huge success, and suggesting otherwise in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary is just silly. Indeed, I’d be willing to bet that the PCEA has a longer and more lasting impact on election policy than any speech by any presidential candidate during the 2016 cycle.
And while the politics-driven silly season in election policy may have just begun – a little earlier this time than most – it doesn’t erase the fact that it’s possible to make progress outside of the partisan process.
You do you, political people. We election geeks will still be here getting it done.
Bauer and Ginsberg blog at the Bipartisan Policy Center blog: “The 2016 presidential election campaign is officially underway. Millions of votes will be cast in the primaries and general election. Both parties will contest these elections vigorously, but both parties can also agree that voters should have a sound and fair process for casting their ballots.”
Looks like a great event Friday at the Bipartisan Policy Center. [bumping to top with corrrected link]
Check it out, guest edited by Doug Chapin.
Details of March 19 event and link to webcast. It’s an A list of participants.
The Center for New York City Law, the Institute for Information Law and Policy, and the Impact Center for Public Interest Law Present:
A Panel Discussion Featuring:
Robert Bauer, Partner, Perkins Coie LLP; former Co-Chair of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration; and former White House Counsel to President Obama
David Becker, Director, Election Initiatives, Pew Charitable Trusts
Michael Ryan, ’95, Executive Director, New York City Board of Elections
Moderator: Anthony W. Crowell, Dean and President of New York Law School
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
6:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Light supper and refreshments will be served
185 West Broadway
(between Worth and Leonard Streets)
Second Floor Events Center
Sponsor: Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, LLP
I was lucky enough to be at the excellent APSA panel Rick Hasen organized on the President’s Commission on Election Administration (and unlucky enough to be staying at the fire-plagued Marriot). I though I’d say a few words about the former. For anyone interested, as am I, in election reform as a field of study, the Commission is especially interesting. Its structure and recommendations prompt at least two questions: Is this the future of election reform, and should we welcome it?
Reform is always hard. Election reform is even harder, on average. There are two unusual obstacles that are always at play for election reform. To begin, you don’t just have to get by the legislators beholden to interest groups; you have to get by the legislators’ own interests. The foxes are guarding this particular henhouse. That means that those who know the most about reform and care the most about it are often the legislators who oppose it. Second, election reform is always second-order reform because it focuses on process rather than substance. I firmly believe that process shapes substance, but election reform is still one step removed from bread-and-butter issues like healthcare and jobs. That makes organizing harder.
In the face of these political tides running against reform, note how differently the President’s Commission looks than most reform commissions of the past.
First, while it’s bipartisan, it’s not you father’s bipartisan commission. Usually bipartisan commissions are headlined by high-profile former elected officials – the big names at the top of the political parties. This one is led by two lawyers with deep experience in the field and deep respect for one another. They aren’t above the fray, but – like all lawyers — they are trained to be in the fray without becoming enemies. As a result, they don’t mistake a political fight for a real one. Otherwise, the Commission is made up of election administrators and corporate CEO’s. They aren’t so much bipartisan or even nonpartisan as a-partisan.
Second, the commission is premised on a model that assumes that the levers of change are bureaucrats. Most election reform is aimed at getting attention of legislators (and usually federal ones at that). This report focuses almost entirely on election administrators. To be sure, some of its recommendations will require the participation of state legislators, but even those reforms are the type that election administrators would be requesting in the first place. The focus on election administrators is particularly intriguing. We often act as if election administrators are the objects of reform rather than the catalysts – as if change can only come if there is pressure from without, with outside groups or legislators making election administrators do the right thing. This report is largely premised on the idea that change can come from within, from those who work every day inside the system.
Third, note how the commission hopes to influence those bureaucrats. The focus here isn’t on grand bargains, but technocratic solutions. Moreover, it relies on soft law not hard law – on the effects best practices and base-lining have on professionals rather than on top-down legal mandates. And as I’ve often written, best practices and base lining turn out to be an excellent strategies for influencing professional peer groups.
Fourth, the Commission doesn’t rely on professional peer pressure alone to drive reform. It relies on dollars and cents. Sometimes I despair that reform wouldn’t happen even if Almighty God came down from on high and ordered it. But these days I have some faith in the Almighty Dollar. And the Commissions’ recommendations are built around the Almighty Dollar. The online registration proposal is a big cost saver, for instance. Pushing the feds to take the lead on certifying new machines will save local jurisdictions time and money as well. And the “tool kit” the Commission provides for election administrators are something most election administrators couldn’t afford to create for themselves and designed to help them spread their limited resources as far as possible. Election administrators are strapped for cash, especially as their HAVA money has basically run out. They are desperate for tools like these. This is thus a classic solution to problem of decentralization, where no individual jurisdiction can afford to create these tools but every jurisdiction needs them. The tool kit, in particular, follows the Field of Dreams model for reform: If you build it, they will come. You can get better administered elections just by giving states and localities better tools to administer them.
Finally, the commission isn’t announcing the need for ambitious, earth-shaking reform, but fixing what’s obviously broken. It’s improving the status quo without disturbing it. Deeply pragmatic and clear-eyed about what’s possible, the report is not the stuff of which many reformers’’ dreams are made.
Given that the Commission is not the stuff of which many reformers’ dreams are made, how should we think about it? While I don’t think that this model is going to displace the more traditional model – bipartisan commissions pursuing ambitious aims and offering grand bargains negotiated by party leaders – I do think the Commission is going to be part of a growing trend in election reform. I also think we should welcome it as a supplement to more traditional reform commissions. The Commission was pragmatic, problem-centered, and focused on modest ideas rather than grand bargains. The success of its recommendations will depend on bureaucratic pride rather than political coalitions, best practices rather than top-down legislation, soft law not hard law. And I think that’s a good thing. I recognize that some think that the Commission wasn’t ambitious enough, but I think the Commission was quite ambitious because it set about to achieve reform rather than just talk about it. That kind of approach may not make headlines, but it is likely to make headway.
[Bumping to the top with the meeting this week.]
Bruce Cain and I are happy to announce two programs for the law and political process study group at APSA in Washington DC. Both are on Saturday, August 30. Here are the details:
|Law and Political Process Study Group
Panel 1 Commissioners Meet Critics: The Presidential Commission on Election Administration
|Date:||Saturday, Aug 30, 2014, 11:30 AM-1:00 PM|
|Chair(s):||Richard L. Hasen, University of California-Irvine|
|Participant(s):||Robert F. Bauer, Perkins Coie
Benjamin L.. Ginsberg, Jones Day
John C. Fortier, Bipartisan Policy Center
Paul Gronke, Reed College,
Heather Gerken, Yale University
Building on the successful efforts of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Democracy Project today announced that it will work to implement the commission’s recommendations.
Tammy Patrick, a former member of the commission and former Maricopa County election official, and Secretary of the Virginia Board of Elections Don Palmer have joined BPC to support this effort. The commission, led by Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg, released its report in January 2014. All former commissioners will advise BPC during the implementation phase.
“We are pleased with the positive reception the commission’s report has received in recent months,” said former Presidential Commission on Election Administration co-chair Bob Bauer. “However, implementation of the recommendations is key and we are we are eager to work with the Bipartisan Policy Center on this next chapter.”
Working with the commissioners, BPC will work with state and local election officials to educate the public and other stakeholders about the commission’s recommendations. BPC will also assess the states where there are opportunities and obstacles to implementing the commission’s recommendations and develop a plan to move discrete reforms in those jurisdictions.
”We are proud of the bipartisan and unanimous work of the commission,” said Ben Ginsberg, former Presidential Commission on Election Administration co-chair. “Our goal moving forward is to get the recommendations and best practices implemented by states and localities where there is a need.”
BPC will focus on these key recommendations in the year ahead: reducing polling place lines, addressing the imminent voting machine technology crisis; online registration; cross-state data sharing efforts; improving the Department of Motor Vehicles registration process; ensuring that schools can be used as polling places; and creating opportunities for voting before Election Day.
“We welcome the presidential commission’s work into our fold and will build on its recommendations to improve the voting process,” said John Fortier, director of BPC’s Democracy Project. “The Bipartisan Policy Center is well-situated to bridge the policy gap between election officials, legislators, academics and advocates as we have shown through our work with the separate Commission on Political Reform.”
After tonight’s great event at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics on the State of Voting in America (I will post a webcast link when available), Monday brings this big symposium on the Bauer-Ginsberg Commission.
Doug Chapin: “in a field where consensus is often in short supply, it’s encouraging to see that a key political and policy voice like the RNLA finds more than a few things to like in the PCEA report.”