Commission To Improve Elections Meets in Philadelphia
The Presidential Commission on Election Administration met in Philadelphia yesterday to hear testimony given by experts from up and down the east coast and beyond on how to improve voting in America.
The commission was created by President Obama this year to “promote the efficient administration of elections” in response to long lines and other glitches that have threatened the integrity of voting days in years past.
The commission solicited input from election officials and academics on how to overcome technical and logistical obstacles that impede voting. Among the topics addressed were analytical methods to better distribute polling resources, the use of electronic signature databases for more streamlined registration, language access issues particularly for Asian and Latino voters, access for people with disabilities and emergency preparedness to salvage elections that are disrupted by major disasters such as Hurricane Sandy.
Left out of the official agenda was the elephant in the room: political obstacles to voting in the form of various suppression laws that a number of states have enacted in the past few years with the intention of keeping poor, elderly and minority people away from the ballot box.
While addressing the wave of voter suppression is not specifically listed on the commission’s mission in its executive order, numerous officials, activists and citizens did speak out against the discriminatory policies during the public comment period.
The meeting in Philadelphia yesterday followed similar events in Washington D.C., Colorado and Florida, with one remaining in Ohio before the group makes its recommendations to the president by the end of the year.
One Size Fits All
The main focus of the panel was on how to avoid long lines, which stretched for six hours or more in certain urban areas during last November’s presidential election.
“There is not a one size fits all solution for long lines,” said Marci Andino, executive director of the South Carolina Election Commission. “Every solution introduces a new set of challenges.”
One potential answer came from Delaware Commissioner of Elections Elaine Manlove, who described how moving to electronic registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles saved time and captured the voter’s signature and other information automatically, avoiding errors and making it easier to verify.
If voter information were universally stored electronically instead of in polling books, several people testified, voters could go to any polling booth they wanted instead of the one in their home district, which would be more convenient and could help bring down wait times. “There’s no double voting and you could register people on the spot,” said John M. Carbone, an attorney and member of the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials and Treasurers.
Extended early voting periods and liberalized absentee ballot rules were also recommended by multiple panelists.
Most of the experts who testified on early voting spoke positively, both as a means to increase the total voting pool and to shorten lines and avoid last-minute problems on election day itself, but Rice University Political Science Professor Robert M. Stein pointed out a downside to having too large a window. “Your campaigns now get much longer. And when they get longer they get more expensive,” he said. “Two weeks is more than adequate.”
Democracy at Stake
When the public had a chance to speak, several commentators pointed out how voters who are not registered Democrat or Republican are effectively disenfranchised in closed primary states like Pennsylvania, where only party members can weigh in on the primaries. A number of speakers also decried inadequate foreign language materials and translators at the polls.
The bulk of the public comments, however, focused on political efforts to keep people from voting. Among the suppression tactics that legislators have rolled out in recent years are ID laws that could keep millions of eligible citizens from casting a ballot, voter roll purges that knock citizens off the registration list and restrictions on registration drives to prevent people from signing up to vote to begin with.
“Those of us working on the ground see these problems time and time again,” said Marian K. Schneider, an attorney with the Advancement Project civil rights organization. “When we exclude classes of people from voting then we don’t have a true democracy.”
“Free and fair elections are at the core of democracy,” added Numa St. Louis of the Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. “Our citizenry is at stake.”