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Commission finds voting process needs to catch up with how Americans live today

January 23, 2014 at 6:24 PM EDT
Operating on the principle that Americans should not find it difficult to vote, a bipartisan committee came to a unanimous conclusion about how to improve the election process. Robert Bauer and Benjamin Ginsberg, co-chairs of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, join Gwen Ifill to discuss their suggestions.

GWEN IFILL: After a six-month review, the president’s Commission on Election Administration has released a series of recommendations designed to improve the way America votes.

Among the steps outlined in the 112-page report, expanding online voter registration and early balloting, increasing the number of schools used as polling places, and updating electronic voting machines.

The president welcomed the proposed reforms at the White House yesterday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: No American should have to wait more than half-an-hour to vote. And they should know, they should be confident that their vote is being properly counted and is secure. A lot of the recommendations they have made are common sense. They are ones that can be embraced by all of us.

GWEN IFILL: We explore the ideas raised by the commission with its co-chairs. Democrat Robert Bauer served as the chief lawyer for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and for a time as his White House counsel. And Benjamin Ginsberg was Mitt Romney’s top campaign lawyer. They also represented opposite sides in the 2000 Bush-Gore election recount.

So you both come from opposite sides of the red-blue divide. So let’s start by asking, as you are doing this investigation and putting together this report, what did you agree on, Mr. Bauer?

ROBERT BAUER, co-chair, Presidential Commission on Election Administration: Well, we wound up with a report that was unanimous and bipartisan.

And we did it by basically adopting a few methodological guides. We looked at the evidence.; We took testimony from state and local election officials. We heeded the advice of experts and looked at the most recent social science. And we looked at the evolving trends in administration of elections, and particularly at the interest and evolving expectations of voters.

And in that way, I think we were able to reach agreements that Democrats and Republicans alike can support.

GWEN IFILL: What are those agreements?

BENJAMIN GINSBERG, co-chair, Presidential Commission on Election Administration: Well, there are a number of things that go to helping the voter experience and the way that they vote, an issue that both Republicans and Democrats agree on.

It includes things like being able to have online registration, to be able to make that easier. It includes providing more opportunities in terms of days for voters to cast their ballots. It includes a plea that the country as a whole and its elected officials look at voting technology, which is going to face a crisis within the next decade.

It includes a plea for schools and communities to be used as polling places, with an accommodation for the safety concerns involved, and a whole panoply of other recommendations and best practices that we think will be good for voters.

GWEN IFILL: But, as you both know better than I do, there’s always been this basic disagreement about what the question is when it comes to voting. Is it about access to the polls? Is it about what happens at the polls after people get there?

Did you settle, what is the priority in this case?

ROBERT BAUER: No, sometimes, that is faced — posed as a false choice.

Most Americans agree that balloting should be secure, double voting shouldn’t be permitted. They also agree that access shouldn’t be unnecessarily hindered. We have recommendations about, for example, populations of voters that deserve special attention, like military voters, disabled voters, language minority voters.

But all Americans shouldn’t find it exceptionally difficult to vote. And we sort of adopted and our commission composition reflected a view that, in a way, voters should be treated, expect to be treated the way customers at our best-run businesses.

GWEN IFILL: Except that I know that — and I will ask the Republicans this — a lot of Democrats would say that voter I.D. issues are a barrier to voting. And that is something you touch only lightly on in this report.

BENJAMIN GINSBERG: We do touch lightly on it.

The reality is that Bob and I have been on opposite sides of issues for a lot of years and will be on the opposite side of issues going forward. But, in looking at elections, and especially in doing recounts, we came to recognize that there are problems with the administration of elections that impact all voters, and that we could solve and come up with bipartisan recommendations for those problems that are sort of built in to the way we vote and the way ballots are cast and counted.

To come up with fixes to those important parts of our electoral system, we looked for the areas where we could agree, without abandoning our principles, as opposed to the areas where we knew we would end up disagreeing.

GWEN IFILL: How about technology in terms of online registration or even online registries or advanced early voting? Is that something that is the key to fixing the fix we’re in?

ROBERT BAUER: Well, I think all of those have to have attention paid to them.

For example, as Ben pointed out, if we don’t pay attention to technology, we’re going to have trouble in the years ahead. We have to certify and set standards for a whole new generation of voting technology.

GWEN IFILL: So, why can’t people vote online? Why wouldn’t that be a good …

ROBERT BAUER: Well, there are some significant unresolved security issues about voting online, but there are other forms of online support for the registration process.

Frankly, we provide ballots through the Internet to our military voters. I mean, there are all sorts of other vehicles online for facilitating the voting process. And to put it this way, we believe that the voting process has to evolve in accordance with the way Americans currently live.

And they currently live in a world in which they’re free — they are connected. They’re connected through the Internet and they expect a certain level of service and support. But, obviously, we have to work through the security issues.

GWEN IFILL: What is — did you — gathering this information, you talked to local officials. And there is some debate about whether this is essentially a state responsibility or a federal responsibility. But what do local officials say?

BENJAMIN GINSBERG: Well, local officials — and we really did concentrate on state and local officials, because our elections are administered in 8,000 separate jurisdictions.

So you really need to concentrate on state and local officials. They said, first of all, there is not uniformity in the problems we face nor the solutions for the different locales. They have concerns about a number of areas. We didn’t talk to a single election official who said, I love the equipment our voters vote on.

In fact, there was uniformity that there are real problems with the machines they have now, which are going to end up sort of being worn out within the next decade. They are not happy with the choices that are available on the marketplace today. That in part is because of a federal certification and standardization process that is simply not working.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you both, as you sit side by side, having worked together on this report, is there a way to close the partisan divide in this discussion about how we vote and who gets to vote and how well it is administered depending on where you happen to live? Is there a way to close that?

ROBERT BAUER: We think there is.

I mean, look, there are going to be disagreements, and they’re going to remain fairly — separate disagreements on some issues, some of them which are caught up in litigation and in the federal legislative process.

But, beyond that, there is a whole fundamental question of how we treat our eligible voters, the facility with which we provide them access to the polls, the administrative standards we set, the respect, frankly, we show them in that process that I think Democrats and Republicans can agree on.

And we have — we have conducted four field hearings. We have traveled around the country. We took a lot of fact-finding. And we have found that the bipartisan consensus we reached on the commission, we also found mirrored in that body of opinion.

GWEN IFILL: Except these are suggestions, not binding. How do you implement them?

BENJAMIN GINSBERG: The implementation really does have to occur, by and large, on the state and local level.

I think Bob and I have become convinced that it is a subject we’re spending a lot more time on, talking to state and local officials. The proper legislative arena for this is legislatures in local — and we’re happy to go out. And the members of the commission — and we had an outstanding group of people working with us on the commission — are all happy to do that.

And I think the report itself is kind of a self-help manual for jurisdictions where there have been problems.

GWEN IFILL: Ben Ginsberg, Bob Bauer, thank you both very much.

ROBERT BAUER: Thank you.