SOTU Policy Stuff: Election Reform

The Nation‘s Ari Berman, the preeminent reporter on the Republican Party’s “war on voting,” pretty much described my own reaction to the president’s rap last night on election reform:

President Obama embraced the cause of voting rights in his State of the Union speech, which he called “our most fundamental right as citizens,” and spotlighted 102-year-old Desiline Victor, a naturalized Haitian immigrant from Miami who waited three hours—and had to make two trips—to cast a ballot. He also proposed a new voting commission headed by lawyers from the Obama and Romney campaigns….

Another election commission is a pretty tepid response to the magnitude of the voting problems we face. And Romney campaign lawyer Ben Ginsberg is a puzzling choice to be its co-chair.

For over two decades, Ginsberg has been a top lawyer for the Republican Party—the same party, you may recall, that has led the effort to restrict voting rights of late. Ginsberg helped lead the 2000 recall effort for George W. Bush. He was forced to resign from the Bush campaign in 2004 after it was revealed that he was also advising the vile Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In 2006, Ginsberg said, “Just like really with the Voting Rights Act, Republicans have some fundamental philosophical difficulties with the whole notion of Equal Protection.”

Besides, doesn’t this “bipartisan commission on election rights” thing sound a mite familiar? Oh yeah:

Following the 2000 election, the Help America Vote Act created the Election Assistance Commission to help states run their elections. It’s become the “zombie voting commission,” according to The Washington Post; it has no commissioners, executive director or general counsel, and hasn’t met publicly since 2011. Republicans have repeatedly blocked the appointment of new commissioners and tried to abolish the agency; Democrats have done little to resurrect it.

Berman suggests it would make more sense to reanimate the old HAVA-created commission than to set up a new one. But the whole idea of a commission strikes me as missing the point: if Republicans can be shamed into supporting the obvious election reforms, then there’s abundant material already out there based on their behavior dating back to 2000 and beyond. They should at least be forced directly in Congress (as has already happened in some states) to oppose simple reforms like adequate opportunities for early voting, a ban on partisan pre-election voter roll “purges,” and a presumption of eligibility, so that at least they pay the price for offensive attitudes towards the minority and first-time voters most affected by voter suppression tactics. Letting them hide behind another commission that can be stonewalled and then gutted is a bad idea.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.