Yesterday, I participated in the kickoff event for the new AEI/Brookings project on election reform. Rick Hasen has written already about his take on Senator Obama’s keynote address, focusing on the comments of the Senator on the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).
My take was that Senator Obama had three important things to say in his address and during questioning. First was his stress on the fact that federal election reform is far from complete. While he was agnostic about whether HAVA would be revisited by Congress, or whether the VRA renewal would be an opportunity for the federal government to address some of the many remaining issues of election reform, it was clear that he saw that there was a lot of unfinished business. Second, as for the areas where Senator Obama saw need for reform, he talked a lot about fixing voter registration problems, voter intimidation and suppression of the vote. At many points in his talk, he said something to the effect that many problems with voter registration can and should be fixed with new statewide voter registration databases, at a number of points saying something to the effect that “the technology exists to fix these problems.” Third, he correctly acknowledged that for there to be further progress on election reform at the federal level that we “have to take the politics out of election reform.”
During the question session, Tom Mann (Brookings) asked Senator Obama exactly how we can take the politics out of election reform. The Senator had two interesting reactions to the question. The first was to note that a lot of the reform action is going on now at the state and local level; he indicated that he thought this was a good thing, and that those reform efforts should be allowed to proceed, and that they eventually may lead to federal efforts. The second was a long discussion about a need for the parties to break out of their current emphasis on a static and divisive politics.
But in the end, Senator Obama was pessimistic about further election reform at the federal level, after questioning from Norm Ornstein (AEI) about whether fixing HAVA, Senator Obama said that he thought there were “no prospects of change at the federal level anytime soon.”
After Senator Obama’s talk, a number of us were struck by how quick he was to claim that we had easy technological solutions to voter registration problems, and his implicit assumption that the technical problems associated with the development and implemention of statewide voter registration databases was somehow an easy problem. Given the recent release of electionline.org’s report, “Election Reform: What’s Changed, What Hasn’t and Why (2000-2006)”, a report that discusses the problems that many states are having implementing their HAVA-mandated statewide voter registration databases, I do think that he is too quickly dismissing the problems that states are facing, and how complicated the task of developing HAVA-compliant statewide voter registration files really is proving to be.