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Friday, Feb 15 2013 11:00 PM

Election commission is merely a start

By The Bakersfield Californian

Voting in America should never be a burden. No U.S. citizen should have to contend with unnecessary obstacles to access one of our most basic rights -- the ability to choose our leaders and vote on matters of importance.

Sadly, that is not our America today, nor has it been for some time.

President Obama announced during Tuesday's State of the Union address that he was forming a nonpartisan commission on voting rights. We've seen such plans before. Will this be any different? Critics say Obama's action may not provide measurable results. But anything that moves the needle will be an improvement.

Obama's commission will be charged with addressing the barriers that inhibit access to the polls -- an issue that's well documented in recent presidential elections.

Lines in last November's election were excessively long, particularly in urban areas, and some voters waited hours to cast their ballots. In Florida, an estimated 200,000 voters simply gave up rather than stand in line. The 2012 Survey of the Performance of American Elections, by Charles Stewart III of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, showed that, on average, black and Hispanic voters waited in line significantly longer than white voters. Across the country, white voters spent about 13 minutes in line, compared with 20 minutes for minority voters.

The study seems to support the contention of voting rights advocates that the system is skewed to make voting among minorities and the poor, especially in large metro areas, more difficult.

But Candi Easter, chairwoman of the Kern County Democratic Party, points out that the voting patterns of poor and minority voters may contribute to the difficulties. She notes that they tend to vote in "big elections" but not primaries or off-year elections, which makes it difficult for elections officials to accurately predict voter turnout and allocate resources.

California did not have nearly the difficulty that other states did. Californians waited just under six minutes to vote, compared with two minutes for Vermont and an astonishing 45 minutes in Florida.

Critics of Obama's new commission contend it is a "been there, done that" proposal. They point to the Election Assistance Commission, formed after the 2000 election. That commission has been so fraught with leadership issues -- it currently does not even have any commissioners or an executive director -- that The Washington Post called it a "zombie voting commission."

The "fix" lies in providing voters with modern tools, including a reliable online voting system, and convincing the public of the importance of casting their ballots in all elections, not just the big one that comes around every four years. It seems it's easier to form a commission than to whip one into a meaningful set of recommendations.

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