Jonathan Bernstein has insisted that we should “expect nothing” from the president’s electoral administration commission, headed by Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg. It’s not a bad prediction for any pundit, because “nothing” is pretty much what we’ve been getting out of Washington for a good long while. Moreover, I wasn’t sure that anyone was more cynical than I am about the possibility of election reform, so it’s nice to have company. As I’ve written elsewhere, getting “from here to there” with election reform is incredibly difficult in the current political climate. Nonetheless, I think that Bernstein is wrong and that it’s worth saying why. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I have occasionally been asked by the commission to provide technical expertise and, like most of the people in my field, know and respect both Bauer and Ginsberg). Your view of the commission will depend on what you think it’s realistic to expect on the reform front. Bernstein, much to his credit, candidly admits that he wasn’t sure what President Obama should have done in the wake of the 2012 election. He suggests that Obama should have pushed for legislation in the hope of slipping it into an omnibus bill, although he ruefully admits it “probably would have died.” (On that prediction, I’d just omit the “probably.”) Or perhaps, says Bernstein, Obama should have pushed to draft “model legislation” for the states. (This doesn’t strike me as any more likely to succeed; it’s hard to see why state legislators will pass meaningful reform given that they are no less self-interested than members of Congress.) Bernstein nonetheless thinks that a dead bill that squeaked through the Senate or model legislation for the states will do more to reform our system than the president’s commission will.
If this were yet-another commission pronouncing on the deep systemic reforms we need (or, worse, trotting out the liberals’ list of pet reform projects), I’d be with Bernstein. I’d be even gloomier than Bernstein, actually. But Bernstein either isn’t paying enough attention to the structure of the commission or doesn’t realize how much good a commission structured in this fashion can do.
As Bernstein astutely points out, this commission doesn’t look like it’s structured to “cut a deal” on election reform. To my eyes, it doesn’t even look like it’s structured to propose Bernstein’s “strong” federal bill or his model legislation for the states. I assume we aren’t going to see some substantial compromise proposal on the hot-button issues of the day. And with good reason. In the current political climate, there is no grand bargain to be had. I don’t care who is on the commission or who is sponsoring Bernstein’s proposed legislation. The votes aren’t there.
The Commission is, however structured to get something done. It’s a commission filled with highly respected election administrators and Fortune 500 CEOs. No representatives of “the groups,” no office holders, no academics, no political types save Bauer and Ginsberg. What can a commission like that do?