The President’s Commission on Election Administration just released its report, and it offers something we don’t often see in policymaking circles these days: sanity. The report provides a knowledgeable, balanced overview of what ails our system, and its recommendations are spot-on. No good deed goes unpunished in Washington, of course. Indeed, I’d be willing to make two predictions. First, the naysayers are going to tell you the Commission should have “done more” by weighing in on controversial issues like voter ID or the Voting Rights Act. Second, most reporters are going to miss why this report matters as much as it does. If tomorrow’s papers trumpet complaints that the Report doesn’t offer any bipartisan “grand bargains” on voter ID or the Voting Rights Act, toss ‘em. Grand bargains can’t be had in this political climate. The Commissioners wisely focused on getting something done. And their recommendations are going to make a real difference to real people. I’d take that deal any day.
Here’s another reason to toss your paper tomorrow: if the paper buries the story on the back page because the reporter couldn’t figure out what makes the Commission’s recommendations so important. To be fair, the Commission’s proposals are not the stuff of which reporters’ dreams are made. But they are the reforms we need. As I predicted, they are low-key, deeply pragmatic, easily implemented, and assiduously nonpartisan proposals. The Commission focused on technical and technocratic solutions to the problems we saw in 2012, emphasizing a customer-service model that reflects not just the influence of the Fortune 500 CEOs who served as commissioners, but basic common sense. Even more impressively, the report reflects a deep knowledge of both cutting-edge social science work and the day-to-day realities of election administration.
Why would such a technical, even technocratic report matter to everyday Americans? First, it is going to help make the invisible election – the problems that journalists rarely report and voters rarely see — visible in a way they’ve never been before. For instance, almost no one outside of the election administration community was aware that we are nearing the crisis point for the machines purchased in the wake of the Help American Vote Act. Now every policymaker is on notice that a Bush v. Gore II lurks on the horizon, which means that they will be on the hook if and when the next disaster strikes. As I noted in my book on our election system, one of the reasons we have such a shoddy voting system is that election problems are invisible to voters and policymakers, at least in the absence of a recount crisis. We can’t fix what we can’t see. Thanks to the Commission, we can now see a lot more than we could before.