Why Obama’s Presidential Commission on Elections Will Fail

Obama's_ Presidential_Commission on Elections

On Thursday, President Obama signed an executive order calling for the establishment of a Presidential Commission on Elections.

It’s no secret that the way we run elections in America is flawed, and 2012 proved why. In Florida, voters heading to the polls early ended up waiting in line for over seven hours, with the last ballot cast at 2:30am.

In the hotly contested battleground state of Ohio, new software resulted in a lawsuit, with complaints over the possibility of election fraud. In Pennsylvania, the battle over photo identification laws took center stage, with claims of election fraud and voter disenfranchisement pitting voters in the state — and around the country — against each others.

These are just a few of examples of the inefficiencies of current election laws, which prompted President Obama to take action. Following up on a promise made during his State of the Union address, the commission’s goal will be to protect our fundamental right to vote:

“That’s why, tonight, I’m announcing a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America,” Obama stated during his address. “And I’m asking two longtime experts in the field, who’ve recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney’s campaign, to lead it. We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy.” 

The two people he’s referring to are lawyers Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg, who, respectively, represented the Obama and Romney campaigns throughout the election.

As outlined in principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest’s announcement on Thursday, the two lawyers will co-chair the nine-member panel, which will be required to submit a final report to the president within 6 months of the commission’s first public meeting.

The report should outline measures to shorten lines at the polls and promote efficient conduct, Earnest explained, and should “identify best practices and otherwise make recommendations to promote the efficient administration of elections in order to ensure that all eligible voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots without undue delay.”

While a valiant effort by President Obama, the nature of elections prevents this from actually working to promote efficient elections for two key reasons:

1) Elections are not solely a federal issue. Article I of the U.S. Constitution gives states the power to regulate “times, Places and Manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives.” While congressional oversight is permitted, election laws vary from state-to-state, making enforcement of the identified “best practices” not only costly, but unconstitutional.

Essentially, Obama cannot force the states to adopt the “best practices” outlined by the commission and, as made evident by the controversy surrounding voter ID laws around the country, states are unlikely to accept change willingly.

2) A similar commission was established after the disastrous 2000 presidential election and failed to execute its goals in a non-partisan manner. The Election Assistance Commission (EAC), created under the Help American Vote Act, hired two consultants to research and write a report on voter fraud and intimidation in the election system.

Tova Wang, Democracy Fellow at Century Foundation and one of the consultants hired, reported that their research had been altered, with key components regarding the Department of Justice removed.

The alterations came after complaints from “several Republican officials” and a former appointee from the Department of Justice despite efforts to offset Wang’s democratic leanings with the hiring of Republican Election attorney Job Serebrov as the second consultant.

Of the EAC, Wang wrote:

“A government entity that seeks democratic progress should be transparent. It should not be in the business of suppressing information or ideas. Such an institution must be thoroughly insulated from political interference from outside operatives or other parts of the executive branch.”

For Obama’s Presidential Commission on Elections to meaningfully impact election law, the president would have to ensure that the commission not succumb to the partisan pressure that has increasingly plagued our democratic process, a seemingly impossible task at this time.