Amidst all the center-left aspirations in President Obama’s State of the Union address – climate change legislation, gun curbs, new federal money for road and bridge repairs, path-to-citizenship immigration reform, public preschool for all kids, a minimum wage hike, you name it – I was most interested (and, ultimately, most disappointed) in what he said about America’s increasingly dysfunctional ballot process.
Roughly 45 minutes into his speech: “We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes one of the most fundamental rights of a democracy, the right to vote. When any Americans – no matter where they live or what their party – are denied that right because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals.”
True that. Obama referenced these outrages on election night (“we need to fix that”), and again during his Inaugural address (“Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercse the right to vote”). And last night he framed the issue in human terms by hailing Desiline Victor, one of his guests seated in the balcony: “When Desiline arrived at her (Florida) polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours. And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line to support her. Because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read ‘I Voted.'”
Cue the emotions! Everybody rose and clapped for Desiline – even John Boehner, who had spent most of the hour looking like his head was about to detonate. Clearly the president was poised to lead a legislative crusade to reform the voting process, to modernize the archaic registration system, to enact national standards for early voting (perhaps a 10-day minimum), to enact national standards for polling sites (more voting machines, more poll workers) that would erase those interminably long lines….right?
Wrong. Obama’s high-flown rhetoric nothwithstanding, he’s poised to do nothing.
The key speech passage: “Tonight, I’m announcing a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America. 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.”
Translation: “See this shovel, folks? I’m digging a hole, and I’m burying this issue under six feet of dirt.”
Obama frequently voices disdain for Washington’s empty rituals, but there is no emptier ritual than the decision to appoint “a non-partisan commission.” That’s where issues go to die. Indeed, the dysfunctional voting process has been studied to death already. Obama’s announcement last night will impress only those Americans afflicted with amnesia; those of us with functioning memories recall that Republican James Baker and Democrat Jimmy Carter co-chaired a Commission on Federal Election Reform less than eight years ago. They came up with 87 recommendations – and nothing happened. That’s how the game works.
Fox in the henhouse
Now Obama wants to play the same game – when, in truth, we don’t need another commission to tell us what we already know. A computerized registration system would rid us of the archaic paper process that keeps dead people on the rolls and as many as 50 million eligible live people off the rolls. (Ohio was particularly egrergious last November.) A computerized system could automatically sign up all consenting live people who’ve interacted with government agencies (such as Motor Vehicles and Social Security). National standards for early voting would bar states from fiddling with the number of days, often for partisan advcantage (as Florida Gov. Scott sought to do). And national standards for polling sites could ensure that there are sufficient workers and machines, to help prevent long lines. In Florida last November, roughly 200,000 people reportedly gave up and went home without having voted.
Worse yet, there’s a permanent commission that you’ve probably never heard of. After the historic voting debacles of 2000 – what more evidence do we possibly need? – Congress enacted, and President Bush signed, the Help America Vote Act. This law created an Election Assistance Commission. The EAC was supposed to advise states on how to fix their problems. Believe it or not, the EAC officially still exists. The problem is, it has virtually no money and no staff. It has no commissioners. It hasn’t had an executive director since 2011, largely because of (you know this is coming) congressional Republican obstructionism. Indeed, House Republicans last year floated several bills that would’ve killed off the EAC – which should not be a surprise, given the fact that the GOP these days is far less interested in voter reform than voter suppression.
Which brings us to Obama’s empty ritual. He wants his commission to be co-chaired by Ben Ginsberg. Checkmate.
It’s the proverbial fox in the henhouse. Ginsberg, lest we forget, is the Republican lawyer who defended Bush’s interests during the 2000 Florida travesty. He was chief counsel to Mitt Romney last fall, and fought the Obama campaign’s efforts to restore early voting in Ohio. He is steeped in the GOP’s voter suppression ethos. His presence on the Obama panel will ensure another toothless exercise.
Senate and House Democrats are sponsoring reform bills that would do what needs to be done, but Obama didn’t mention them in his speech. Clearly he has little interest in taking meaningful action, in spending political capital to buttress his lofty rhetoric. If all he does is kick the can with yet another commission, he too will be guilty of “betraying our ideals.”
Yo, readers: Tomorrow’s post will up at noon. The material I’m working with is embargoed until then.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1