How to advance voting rights through executive action

Voters across the country scored significant victories in the past few weeks. A federal judge struck down Wisconsin’s voter ID law, saying it violated the Voting Rights Act. A Pennsylvania ID law is dead after the governor decided not to appeal a decision ruling it unconstitutional. And two states passed laws expanding voter registration access. Still, fights continue in dozens of states, and a bill to strengthen the Voting Rights Act is stalled in Congress.

At a time of historic dysfunction and congressional inaction, it is not enough to rely on the courts. It is high time for a greater executive role in safeguarding the right to vote. President Obama has the authority to act, and he must.

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After long lines marred the 2012 election, the president formed a bipartisan commission to identify best practices and new ideas to improve the voting experience. The commission’s final report, issued in January, contained potent recommendations for reform on the state and local level. Obama also spoke out recently on the grim reality of voting restrictions. “The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago,” the president told a group of activists in April. These efforts to restrict the right to vote will not go unchallenged, he assured the audience.

But if the president’s words are to be more than mere flourishes, he must assert his leadership through executive action. The Brennan Center for Justice recently released a proposal outlining several concrete steps Obama can take to improve elections in America.

The integrity of our democracy depends in large part on voter participation, but at least 50 million eligible Americans are not registered to vote. In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) to simplify the process by requiring certain government agencies to provide registration services. The law immediately boosted registration, with more than 30 million people signing up using the new methods in the first year alone. In the two decades since, 141 million Americans registered through government agencies.

But this increase came almost entirely from state agencies. The law also permits federal agencies to offer registration services. And despite requests from a number of states, most have not. If Obama directed federal agencies to provide registration services, the millions of Americans who interact with these agencies would have more opportunities to sign up. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services could expand registration opportunities to the 700,000 new Americans who naturalize each year, for example. More than 21 million veterans could benefit from registration opportunities through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The president can also direct agencies to develop plans to further promote voter participation and help states improve their election systems. The Education Department, for example, could provide voter education and registration services to 15 million public high school students. Young people have the lowest registration and turnout rates. This plan would help boost their participation.

Another strategy the president should undertake is to enlist the private sector to help ensure free, fair, and accessible elections. The bipartisan voting commission was a good first step. But Obama could go further by convening leaders of the bar, business, clergy, education, and technology to create a forum for analyzing and addressing persistent problems threatening the right to vote. Such a diverse community would bring together different kinds of expertise to improve wide-ranging issues from polling place management to voting machine technologies.

There is precedent for such a move. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy summoned leaders and asked them to help protect civil rights. Fifty years later, after the Supreme Court gutted one of that era’s core voting protections, it is time for another summit. Importantly, such a conference would underscore that the right to vote is a civic obligation that cuts across demographics, disciplines, and party lines.

There is no panacea to solving today’s voting challenges, but Obama has the legal authority to make significant headway. If meaningful reform is to occur, it will require engagement from various sectors of society and government.

An effort directed by the president, including not only state and local jurisdictions, but also federal agencies and the private sector, can bring about the comprehensive changes necessary to repair our nation’s broken election system. The integrity of our democracy requires and deserves such a shared national commitment.

Zhou is a research associate in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.