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President Barack Obama’s State of the Union pledge to create a nonpartisan commission to “improve the voting experience in America” has triggered reactions from the election-overhaul community that range from guarded optimism to overt disappointment.
Although voting-rights advocates are happy that Obama is trying to address some of the barriers that greeted voters on Election Day, they differ as to whether a presidential commission can play a viable role in the process.
“This should be a critical part of the larger mission of modernizing elections so every eligible citizen can vote and have that vote counted,” Brennan Center for Justice President Michael Waldman said of the proposal in a statement.
“He announced this commission, which we think is a first step, but we need to go from commission to action,” the Advancement Project’s Judith Browne Dianis said at a briefing the morning after the State of the Union.
Perhaps the most terse response came from the League of Women Voters, which after praising Obama on gun control measures, an overhaul of immigration laws and climate change, said it was “surprised and disappointed that the president did not suggest bold action” on voting changes.
“We’re missing an opportunity here for the president to use his very considerable voice to push for reforms now,” League President Elisabeth MacNamara said in an interview. “I think sending this to a commission means we don’t have to talk about it for a while, and we’re just very disappointed that’s the approach he decided to take.”
The commission will be co-chaired by Bob Bauer, a lawyer at Perkins Coie who served as Obama’s White House counsel and chaired his re-election committee, and by Benjamin Ginsberg, a Patton Boggs attorney who advised the campaign of Mitt Romney and served as national counsel to the Bush/Cheney campaigns in 2000 and 2004. Five other commissioners will be appointed.
The commissioners will have six months to “identify practical, common-sense steps that state and local election officials can take to improve the Election Day experience” before making their recommendations, a White House representative confirmed. Ending long lines at polling places and bringing in business leaders with customer service experience will be a focus, according to a fact sheet circulated by the White House.