We Can't Fix Our Broken Elections Until We Fix Our Broken Politics

Fixing the country's uneven and archaic voting system isn't complex, but even a comprehensive report from a presidential panel isn't likely to sweep problems aside. Elections, after all, are all about politics.

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Fixing the country's uneven and archaic voting system isn't complex: Expand voting times, use better data systems, share resources. But even a comprehensive and unbiased report from a presidential panel isn't likely to quickly sweep problems aside. Elections, after all, are all about politics.

During his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama announced that he was forming a panel of experts, led by attorneys from each party, to develop recommendations that he hoped would ensure that voting problems that emerged during the 2012 election wouldn't be repeated. He invited 102-year-old Desiline Victor to be his guest, telling the audience that she had to wait three hours to vote in North Miami.

As data compiled by The New York Times last year showed, Florida was by far the most difficult state in which to vote in 2012, with an average wait time of 45 minutes. It was this sort of confusion and frustration that Obama hoped to curtail by forming the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which revealed its findings on Wednesday.

The Huffington Post's Ryan Reilly outlines the main recommendations of the group. "States should implement online voter registration and expand early voting in order to reduce long lines at the voting booth," the group found, given that "long lines were a bigger problem in larger jurisdictions and that nearly half of Americans lived in places where elections officials admitted long lines were an issue." The report includes a set of interesting tools like this wait-time simulator for polling places.

At the Election Law Blog, Rick Hasan says that the panel "accomplish[ed] much more than I thought could be accomplished given the limited charge." He points to six of the most important things that emerged from the group (whose full report can be seen here). First, that voter fraud is a negligible issue. "[T]here’s not much in the report which is overly controversial," Hasan writes, which is in part because the focus on fraud as a threat to the sanctity of elections is highly partisan. Hasan's admiration of the group's ability to get something done is, he thinks, based on it avoiding such controversial topics. All that the report says, really, is that fraud, when it rarely occurs, is usually a function of absentee ballots.

But side-stepping fraud because it's political emphasizes why even the sensible recommendations of the group aren't likely to be seized upon by state legislatures. Early voting — which can, for example, mean allowing people to come to centralized polling places on weekends prior to Election Day — is a demonstrated way of getting more people to vote, and is a core recommendation from the panel. But in 2012 in Ohio it became a deeply contested issue. A few weeks before election day, early voting hours were curtailed in Democratic areas by the state's Republican legislature, prompting a raft of lawsuits. Ohio's secretary of state, who implemented the changes, eventually completed a survey of the 2012 election in the state, finding that fraud "is not an epidemic." Fraud, of course, was why the legislature insisted early voting restrictions were necessary.

More voters coming to the polls usually means more Democratic voters. It's why Republicans usually fare better in non-presidential elections: fewer people coming to the polls tends to mean that a higher percentage of them are Republicans. One of the most telling scenes in the upcoming Netflix documentary Mitt is when Mitt Romney emerges from voting in Massachusetts that November to discuss with his wife how strong turn-out appeared to be. He doesn't sound happy about it.

Which is why Republican legislatures, the primary drivers of new voting restrictions in 14 states since 2011, likely won't feel compelled by the commission's findings to leap into action to make it easier to vote.

Voting laws by state, via the NCSL.

As Hasan notes, there's another contentious issue in the report's recommendations, what he calls a "time bomb": the need to invest in new voting technology, particularly to replace aging voting machines. "There has been a terrible market failure in voting technology which needs to be addressed," he writes, "(and which needs federal funding—something the Commissioners don’t call for)." This is also a partisan issue. In an environment like the one in which we find ourselves, imagine the urgency with which Republican members of Congress will seek to allocate more federal money to make voting easier. Primary opponents' attack ads practically write themselves.

The real problem on Election Day is that the people who run elections are the same ones that rely on their outcome. That is the first fix that's needed to encourage more voting, and the one that is probably hardest to implement.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.