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Ideas on ways to shorten voting lines set to be unveiled

Updated at 5:45 p.m.: President Obama's meeting with the Presidential Commission on Election Administration was postponed until Wednesday due to the inclement weather in Washington Tuesday.

One year ago, President Obama announced in his State of the Union address that he was creating a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience after some Americans were plagued with hours-long waits to cast a ballot during the 2012 election.

Now, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which was formally created in March, is wrapping up six months of meetings with stakeholders like election administrators, activists, voters and academics to talk about ways to improve the voting process. 

The panel’s 10 members were led by co-chairmen Robert Bauer, the general counsel to President Obama’s re-election campaign and a former White House counsel, and Ben Ginsberg, who was the national counsel for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, as well as the two Bush-Cheney presidential campaigns. They were joined by public servants who work on elections, but also members of the private sector like Deloitte CEO Joe Echevarria and Brian Britton, a vice president at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, an organization famous for knowing how to handle large crowds.

Tuesday, the commission will present their recommendations to Mr. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and release them to the public. They looked at a range of issues, from the number, operations, management and design of polling places to ballot accessibility and simplicity. Although their recommendations are nonbinding and won’t include proposals for federal legislation, the members hope that states and municipalities will adopt their recommendations and better allocate existing resources.

At the very least, the commission’s work might encourage officials to examine aspects of the voting process they hadn’t considered before. Commission member Trey Grayson, the former Kentucky secretary of state and current director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, pointed to one problem the commission learned about in Florida.

“You’d have very long lines at some polling locations and very short lines at other polling locations, all in the same jurisdiction,” Grayson said. “The problem in Florida was a really, really long ballot.”

An analysis by the Orlando Sentinel estimated that more than 200,000 voters likely gave up on voting because of the hours-long lines they faced. Some polling stations closed at least 90 minutes late due to the high volume, which elections supervisors blamed on the cutback of early voting days and a record-long ballot with questions on 11 constitutional amendments.

Grayson said the commission found that sometimes, the length of time it would take people to get through the ballot was not always factor in planning. “Many election administrators probably take that into account but not all,” he said.

Another issue that can slow down the process is problems with the voter registration system, which can delay people at their polling stations, he said.

Wendy Weiser, the head of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which works on voting issues, says she’s “cautiously optimistic that we’re going to have some real serious recommendations that will be a fairly significant step forward.”

She said the group’s recommendations will carry a fair amount of weight given the bipartisan makeup of the commission, and that there is a “huge appetite” for improvements in the states, many of which took steps to improve the voting experience after 2012.

“At this point we really need to modernize,” Weiser said. “The country’s at a point where we really need to be modernizing our elections, especially our voter registration system, to bring it into the 21st century.”

She said she expects the group to make recommendations on how to improve the voter registration process, polling place management, ballot design, and early voting, among other issues.

The group’s recommendations will follow on the release of bipartisan legislation to restore parts of the Voting Rights Act that were gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision. 

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