President Barack Obama established today a commission to study ways of shortening lines at polling places and propose other steps to improve the way U.S. elections are run, the White House said.
Obama formed the nine-member commission through an executive order he signed. Serving as its co-chairmen will be two veteran election lawyers, Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg. Bauer handled legal affairs for Obama’s two presidential campaigns and Ginsberg was the top election lawyer for 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
The commission is to submit a report within six months after its first public meeting. It will “serve as a best- practices guide for state and local election officials to improve voters’ experience at the polls under their existing election laws,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
The push for streamlined voting procedures follows an election in which Democratic constituencies faced long lines at polling places. Some were still recording votes hours after the official closing time in Florida.
Black voters nationwide, who cast 93 percent of their ballots for Obama in 2012, according to a CNN exit poll, and Hispanics, who gave 71 percent of their votes to him, waited an average of 20 minutes in voting lines, according to a study by Charles Stewart III, who teaches politics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
The wait for whites, who backed Republican nominee Mitt Romney, 59 percent to 39 percent, averaged about 13 minutes.
Betrayal of Ideals
Obama announced his intent to set up the commission in his State of the Union speech last month.
“When any American -- no matter where they live or what their party -- are denied that right because they can’t wait for five or six or seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals,” the president told the joint session of Congress.
Obama also supports legislative proposals offered by congressional Democrats, Earnest said. Bills to require early- voting periods and same-day registration have been introduced in both houses of Congress.
“There are now efforts to make sure voting works better and easier for people, particularly in areas where we saw repeated problems,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the democracy program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “This does tap into a notion that I think a lot of Americans have -- that there should be some kind of minimum national standards, that elections should be free and fair and accessible to everyone.”
Some Republican lawmakers, such as House Administration Committee Chairwoman Candice Miller of Michigan, a former secretary of state who oversaw elections, have said that the issue should be left to the states.
The focus on voting rights gives Democrats an opportunity to shift the debate away from Republican efforts to curb alleged voter fraud. Though studies have shown fraud isn’t prevalent, Republican-led efforts in some states resulted in passage of voter-identification laws.
The Brennan Center reported that 25 percent of voting-age blacks, 16 percent of voting-age Hispanics and 15 percent of all voting-age Americans in households with annual incomes of less than $35,000 lacked the identification required by the laws. A study by the center that focused on Ohio said voter fraud occurred 0.00004 percent of the time in 2004 elections.
The U.S. Supreme Court which heard challenges last month to the 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires federal approval of rules changes in all or part of 16 states with a history of discrimination. The Justice Department used that provision to challenge voter-identification laws in South Carolina and Texas, on the grounds that they discriminate against minorities.
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