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posted: 2/25/2014 5:01 AM

An outbreak of sanity

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Reports by presidential commissions are often like those statues that dominate public squares in Washington: massive in size, but opaque in origin and quickly obscured by a thick layer of grime. But one commission presented a report last month that reflects an unusual amount of bipartisan cooperation and good sense. It deserves far more attention than it's received so far.

The panel was formed by President Obama to recommend improvements in our election system after many Americans had to wait for hours to vote in 2012. In a masterstroke, the president appointed the top election lawyers from each party as co-chairs: Democrat Robert Bauer and Republican Benjamin Ginsberg. (Ginsberg is a law partner of Cokie's brother.)

These men differ on many issues, but at heart they are professionals, not politicians. And in a capital where compromise is far too often equated with betrayal, they embraced a search for common ground. "We looked for the areas where we could agree without abandoning our principles, as opposed to the areas where we knew we would end up disagreeing," Ginsberg told "PBS NewsHour."

Moreover, they started with facts, not fantasy. They reasserted the valuable principle that there is an objective reality that can be described and documented, a shared basis for pragmatic prescriptions.

"We looked at the evidence," Bauer said on PBS. "We took testimony from state and local election officials. We heeded the advice of experts and looked at the most recent social science. And we looked at ... the interest and evolving expectations of voters."

This is a more important -- and elusive -- ideal than it sounds. Washington is overrun today by ideological warriors who don't look at the evidence, but simply assert their prejudices and deny reality.

Experts overwhelmingly agree, for example, that immigration and trade don't cost jobs, they create them; that climate change and evolution are scientifically sound; that Obama was born in Hawaii, not Kenya or Indonesia. Yet myths, rumors and outright falsehoods denying these indisputable facts continue to spread.

That's why it's so refreshing to encounter a panel that assiduously listened to the evidence and the experts. And that's why their recommendations are so useful. Election rules can be highly controversial, tending to favor one party or the other, but the panel played it straight. As election law expert Heather Gerken of Yale Law School wrote, the report "offers something we don't often see in policymaking circles these days: sanity."

Some of the report's recommendations:

• Expand online registration. Americans increasingly use digital tools for banking and shopping, gaming and dating, and as Bauer put it, "the voting process has to evolve in accordance with the way Americans currently live."

• Extend opportunities for early or mail-in voting. Voter participation in the U.S. is usually about 60 percent, well below other industrialized countries, but rates go up when voting becomes easier. In some states, the GOP has actually opposed more flexible rules, fearing they will help Democrats, but the Republicans on this panel rejected that cynical calculation.

• Improve voting technology. Machines in many jurisdictions, upgraded after the Florida Fiasco of 2000, are now breaking down. Says Bauer, "Voters should be treated ... the way customers (are) at our best-run businesses."

• Open more schools as voting places. They are perfect for the job -- easy to find, with plenty of space and parking. But after the Newtown shooting, many communities turned skittish about allowing outsiders into their schools. The panel's suggestion: Keep students and teachers at home on Election Day if security is a concern.

• Encourage states to exchange data from voter and motor vehicle lists. Fraud is "rare," the panel said, but Republicans care deeply about this issue, and the Democrats agreed to a suggestion that could further diminish deception.

The commission report has limits. Republicans in a number of states have passed voter ID laws designed to discourage voters who lean Democratic -- the poor, young and disabled. And the Supreme Court last year struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act, weakening federal supervision over election rules in states with a history of racial discrimination.

Both developments could restrict, rather than expand, the right to vote. The Obama administration is correct to challenge them, in the courts and in Congress.

In the interest of consensus, the commission avoided both topics, but the issues they did address are still vitally important. About 8,000 local jurisdictions supervise our elections, and every one of them should read the commission's report and implement its recommendations.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

© 2014, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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