'Fraud is rare, but when it does occur, absentee ballots are often the method of choice'...
By Brad Friedman on 1/22/2014, 1:27pm PT  

Following the national shame of 2012 when long lines at the polls on Election Day and during Early Voting (which was restricted by Republicans in a number of states) once again suppressed the vote and endangered American democracy, President Obama called for electoral reform as he declared victory on Election Night.

"I want to thank every American who participated in this election...Whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time," he said, adding: "By the way, we have to fix that."

During his second Inauguration speech, he repeated the message: "Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote."

At his State of the Union Address in 2013, he again re-iterated the call for reform --- citing the story of 102-year old Desiline Victor, an African-American Florida woman who was forced to wait in line for hours on end to cast her vote in 2012 --- before announcing his creation, by Executive Order, of a bi-partisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration. It would be headed up by both his own top election attorney, Robert Bauer, as well as Mitt Romney's lead election attorney and long-time GOP operative, Benjamin Ginsberg.

After six months of hearings and conferences around the country, that commission has now released its unanimous recommendations [PDF] for improving access to the voting booth and for other much-needed improvements for electoral administration.

While coming to bi-partisan consensus with a report on such a contentious topic is no small achievement in and of itself in this extraordinarily divisive environment, the Commission highlighted one fairly obvious point which will almost certainly disappoint the most partisan Republicans, but also, perhaps less obviously, some Democrats...

On Page 56 of the 112-page report, the Commission writes about fraud by voters, explaining that "Fraud is rare, but when it does occur, absentee ballots are often the method of choice."

The reason that partisan Republicans will be upset about that point should be fairly obvious to long time readers of The BRAD BLOG. As we have been highlighting over the past decade, polling place voter impersonation is virtually non-existent, despite the on-going and still-increasing efforts by Republicans to suppress the vote with polling place Photo ID restrictions. We've spent years calling out the GOP for their despicable attempts to undermine representative democracy by trying to keep Democratic-leaning voters from casting their legal vote through unnecessary restrictions at the ballot box on Election Day. (While both recent victories in courts of law as well as the court of public opinion, suggest at least some good news on that front.)

While the Commission's point about fraud being "rare" will, no doubt, make many Democrats and champions of the right to vote happy, the second part of the Commission's sentence should be noticed as well --- particular by Democrats.

"Absentee ballots are often the method of choice" for actual fraud in American elections, the Commission warns, even as Democrats, of late, have begun to go to extraordinary efforts to dangerously expand ill-considered Vote-by-Mail and Absentee Voting, increasing the possibility of the only type of voter fraud which really does threaten the integrity of elections. (Election fraud by insiders, manipulations of voting machines, etc. is a different matter. For the moment, we're focusing on potential fraud by voters, as per the point being made by the Commission.)

The most recent example of this expansion of dangerous Vote-by-Mail elections was in Colorado, where the Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper signed a sweeping election reform bill, supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans in the state legislature, that would send an absentee ballot to every voter in the state whether they wanted one or not.

While Democrats may happily highlight the Commission's finding on the lack of polling place fraud, they are less likely to take notice of the second part of that sentence.

Most of the Commission's report, however, is not about fraud, but about recommendations to improve voting for Americans.

As UC Irvine election law professor Rick Hasen describes it: "The release comes with a unanimous set of recommendations and best practices. Along with the release come 26 Appendices comprising documents with data and best practices totalling over 1,000 pages, an extensive survey of local election officials, and an Election Toolkit (hosted by the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project) with tools for state and local election officials to calculate poll worker placement and minimize long lines, as well as to set up or integrate existing tools for online voter registration systems."

While we will, no doubt, have more to say about the Commission's report in the future, after a full read and analysis, here is how the ten Commissioners summed up their key recommendations in the report's opening letter to the President:

  • modernization of the registration process through continued expansion of online voter registration and expanded state collaboration in improving the accuracy of voter lists;
  • measures to improve access to the polls through expansion of the period for voting before the traditional Election Day, and through the selection of suitable, well-equipped polling place facilities, such as schools;
  • state-of-the-art techniques to assure efficient management of polling places, including tools the Commission is publicizing and recommending for the efficient allocation of polling place resources; and
  • reforms of the standard-setting and certification process for new voting technology to address soon-to-be antiquated voting machines and to encourage innovation and the adoption of widely available off-the-shelf technologies.

In his early analysis, Hasen notes that "Achieving bipartisan consensus is a big deal, and ending with unanimous, rational recommendations in this contentious area rife with partisan skirmishes (some involving Bauer and Ginsberg) is no small feat."

"That said," he continues, "the scope here is modest. The initial charge to the Commission contemplated no federal legislation and the Commission recommends none. This is really the fault of the Order’s charge and not the Commission (and I would guess the limited charge was necessary to get buy in from some of the Commissioners.) The Commission takes the law and politics as given: there is nothing about reviving the moribund Election Assistance Commission (more about that later), about fixing the Voting Rights Act, or about strengthening voting protections in the face of partisan manipulations of voting rules in states and localities. There are pleas for collecting data and adopting best practices, but no calls for money to fix problems or federal legislation to mandate fixing the problems. The report and Commission’s lasting impact will be limited by the absence of enforcement mechanisms, unless Commission members can use the attention from the Report to push for change."

As noted, we'll likely have much more on all of this in the days ahead.

The Presidential Commission's complete report, as well as additional supportive material such as their Election Toolkit and other administrative aids, is posted here: SupportTheVoter.gov

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