We know little about President Barack Obama’s new Commission on Election Administration except for its structure, as outlined in the executive order that explains its task is to improve voting in America, and the names of its two appointed co-chairs: Obama's former counsel Bob Bauer and Republican attorney Ben Ginsberg, who worked for Mitt Romney.
But while it has yet to explain its methodology or get together a full staff (the executive order directs that no more than nine members are to be appointed) the commission—an idea born on election night 2012 when Obama declared we "have to fix" long lines at the polls—is about to get to work.
Steve Croley, deputy White House counsel, told Yahoo News the White House is gearing up to announce the committee's full roster next month and set the group to work. The committee, he said, will be a mix of individuals including "several people who basically run elections for a living" at the state, county or local levels, in addition to those working on the private side. No other details were offered about commissioners.
The commission, not the White House, will set the agenda, Croley added. And part of its work will include significant outreach to state and local election officials and administrators, academics and others experienced in elections. A report will be given to the president six months from its first meeting on “how do we improve the experience of voting,” Croley said.
Funds and housekeeping for all presidential commissions are handled through the General Services Administration, but no money was requested for the commission in the president’s proposal or in GSA’s budget request. Croley said that the commission is expected to be very low budget.
The 2012 elections were clouded with stories of eight-hour voting experiences in Florida, polling places closing early due to the inability to handle voter volume, long lines in Virginia, voting machine issues in Pennsylvania and Colorado, voter roll problems in Ohio and balloting problems in Arizona.
"We can fix this. And we will," Obama said in his State of the Union speech in February when he announced the co-chairs for the commission. "The American people demand it, and so does our democracy."
The commissioners will drive the agenda. The two co-chairs declined to be interviewed for this article, choosing through a spokesman to defer to the White House until the commission is underway. Croley said once the commission is formed, it will take a hands-off approach and allow the co-chairs to lead the process.
Per the executive order creating the committee, the commission is supposed to examine voting problems highlighted in the 2012 election, and specifically examine potential voting obstacles to members of the military, overseas voters, voters with disabilities and voters “with limited English proficiency." Several potential areas of study are outlined in the executive order—including training of polling workers, the operation of polling places and voting machines, ballot simplicity, and overseas balloting—but these are listed merely as suggestions.
Voting rights advocates have cheered the formation of the commission and the idea behind it, but with so little known about what the commission will do and how it will function, much skepticism remains about the commission’s potential or staying power.
At the very least, voting rights advocates say, the well-known and well-respected partisan co-chairs have the potential to send a strong message.
"I think it’s structurally set up so that if they do in fact come up with some good recommendations, that it will be very powerfully received," said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program, which promotes voter rights.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, added, “If they could come to agreement and come up with some joint recommendations, that would be very meaningful because it'd be hard for anybody on either side to argue strongly against them."
But Sloan questioned exactly how motivated and involved the two busy co-chairs will be in their new positions.
"I do not have my hopes up," Sloan added. "It could be great, again, because Bauer and Ginsberg are highly respected. It could also be one of those things where there's a big announcement and there's very little follow-through."
"Croley conceded that yes, the proof will be in the final result, but at the outset, the co-chairs are "extremely motivated for this not to be viewed or become a commission that produces a paper report that sits on a shelf and collects dust." It will be a "hit-the-ground-running commission which takes its work and mission very seriously” he said.
Weiser would like to see the modernization of our nation's voting systems—with regard to voting machines, how and when we vote, and how we operate early voting—at the top of the commission's agenda "We're using 19th-century technology for 21st-century elections," she said.
While voting rights advocates await more details on the commission—who will staff it, how they will meet, their agenda and their budget—some critics say the whole effort is just wasteful.
"We already have a federal bipartisan election commission," Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a voter ID advocate, opined in a post for Heritage's The Foundry blog following the president's State of the Union address. Von Spakovsky noted that the U.S. Election Assistance Commission was created in 2002, but the four commissioner seats have long been vacant as well as the support staff positions. ("They are supposed to be filled by the President," he wrote.)
Additionally, von Spakovsky questions if a commission under Obama won't simply be used to push his agenda.