Seven of the Most Important Achievements of the Presidential Commission on Election Reform

The Commission’s report is one of the most effective and credible documents on meaningful voting reform issued in many years.  I attribute much of that effectiveness to the original decision of how to design the Commission itself.  It was not structured to include voting rights activists from the left and the right; nor did it include national politicians.  Instead, the Commission was dominated by local election administrators – the people who have the most experience with all the dysfunctions in our current voting system and some of the strongest incentives to make the process work well – along with business leaders in high-volume service areas who cannot survive unless they treat people as consumers to be respected and cultivated.  And it was led by two of the most experienced and respected election lawyers in the country committed to evidence-based voting policy.

Here is an initial list of what I consider seven of the Commission’s most important achievements that need to be highlighted.  The report itself is all business:  it is blissfully free of the kind of glittering and vacuous generalities about voting one would expect in a government-commission report;  nor does the report trumpet its own achievements.  Partly for this reason, the report is actually more innovative than I suspect will generally be recognized.

1.  Focusing on What Matters to Political Participation.  The biggest policy barrier to more widespread voting is our unique – and uniquely burdensome – system of voter registration.  The media and others tend to focus far more publicity on controversial changes  to voting – such as the controversies over voter ID laws – and to ignore the much larger static and long-standing barriers.  There is no “news” or “controversy” about obstacles to voting that are part of the status quo.  But in terms of the numbers of voters who are shut out of voting, there is much more at stake in fixing our registration system than in the ID-law controversies of the moment.  The Commission not only throws its weight behind fixing this system.  Even more importantly, it provides an exceptionally clear path and direct guidance on exactly the right changes that need to be made – and that some states are making already – to knock down the major registration barriers to more widespread participation.

 2.  Collaborating with the Private Sector to Improve the Voting Process.  A major innovation in government over the last 20 years – more at the local government level – has been finding ways to take advantage of private-sector expertise and incentives to make government function more effectively (think bike-share programs or Millennium Park in Chicago).  But our system of voting has remained oblivious to these changes.  The difficulties in the rollout of the Health Care Act are a recent reminder that government often needs private-sector expertise on matters like technology.  The Commission report is the first significant innovation in the voting area to suggest a series of ways our voting system can be made to deliver a higher-quality experience for voters by taking advantage of the tools and knowledge the private sector has already developed to deliver high-volume services at good quality levels.

 3.  A Commitment to Concreteness.  The report is unusually concrete.  Instead of talking abstractly, for example, about how no one should have to wait an “unreasonable” amount of time to vote, the Commission bites the bullet and lays down a specific marker:  no one should have to wait more than ½ hour.  This is now likely to become a benchmark against which election systems and administrators are going to be judged.  It will provide a key focal point for organizations and journalists to assess elections.

This is only one example of the report’s commitment to being concrete.  Instead of just offering general recommendations on various issues, the report consistently points to specific examples in which some states or local jurisdictions have already created the “best practices” in various areas that others should now follow and adapt to their particular circumstances.  Election administrators and others are not left at sea to figure out how to institutionalize the report’s new administrative reforms and guidelines.  They are told: we need to start collecting data in effective ways on the voting experience in order to improve it – and if you want to see exactly how that can and should be done, Wisconsin already has a model system in place that enables its election to run well.  For how to run an online voter registration system, look to Arizona and Washington.

4.  The Strong Endorsement of Early Voting.  Early voting in various forms (which includes absentee voting) has been among the most significant changes of the last decade, with 1/3rd of the votes cast in the 2012 elections being cast early.  Initially, there was a great deal of consensus on this issue and it was adopted with bipartisan support.  Since 2008, when Democrats began to appear to benefit more from early voting, the issue has become a bit more partisan at the legislative level.

At this stage, it is unclear whether Democrats have just been better organized about early voting, so that Republicans will soon catch up, or whether there are more structural reasons early voting is likely to benefit Democrats more than Republicans in an enduring way.  In reaction to the short-term success Democrats have had thus far with early voting, Republican legislatures have cut back a bit on early voting in a handful of states.  But the actual election administrators who dominated the Commission recognize that early voting is essential to making the entire election process function smoothly and successfully (one of the most interesting empirical findings in the report is that voters are willing to tolerate longer waits during early voting than on election day, because they feel more control during the early voting process – they can come back another day, or schedule their lives with more flexibility than a single Tuesday permits).  Specific issues about how to structure early voting remain.  But the report firmly recognizes and endorses the inevitability and desirability of early voting in general, and there will be significant policy consequences, in my view, from that strong bipartisan endorsement.

 5.    Bringing Modern Data, Management Tools, and New Technology to the Voting Process.  This is another of the report’s most innovative moves, and it is closely related to the emphasis on learning from the private sector.  Put most simply, the report tries to push voting systems in the 21st century.  It suggests measures like using conventional business analytical tools and technology that are used to manage potential line problems in the most efficient ways.  It suggests collecting real-time data on how well polling places are performing and using feedback and monitoring processes to improve performance.  It provides actual web-tools and sites to enable instant, complex calculations on how long lines will be at various times of the day, based on number of poll workers, expected number of voters, and the like.  These are all highly creative and intriguing ideas. I would like to have seen the Commission do even more in this area; this is one place where the report is less concrete and less developed than in most other areas.  But this is a major innovation that begins to open the door to bringing voting as a system of public administration into the modern age.

 6.  Ringing the Fire Bell on the Coming Crisis in Voting Technology.  Enough said.  Hopefully, election administrators and others will be able to wave this report in front of legislators to force this issue onto the budgetary agenda.

7.  Treating Voters with the Dignity Democratic Citizens Deserve.  Finally, the report implicitly recognizes that voters should come out of the voting process with a sense of elevated respect for the democratic process and their role as citizens.  Voting should not be a degrading process in which voters leave with contempt for the way government treats them, including the kinds of indignities involved in being forced to wait hours to vote.  Everything about the report – including its efforts to draw on private-sector experience about how to provide high-quality services to large numbers of consumers that make them want to come back for more – creates the right atmosphere for thinking about what the voting process ought to be like and how we can reform it to make that happen.

The Commission’s mandate to fix the problem of unconscionably long lines to vote was initially criticized by some as too narrow.  But long lines were always a lever into unearthing a great many of the dysfunctional elements in our voting system.  The Commission pressed on that lever harder, and with greater effect, than many people perhaps expected.  Now the question is how much leverage the report itself will provide as a means of getting its solid recommendations adopted in practice.  The report should provide a central mobilizing focal point for what will take a concerted effort.