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    Election panel proposes steps to boost voting

    Panel shies away from politically volatile issues

    WASHINGTON — A bipartisan commission recommended a series of steps Wednesday to make it simpler to cast ballots in the next election, but largely avoided the most politically contentious issues in a debate over voter access that has become deeply partisan.

    Concluding a six-month review, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration said in its report that jurisdictions should expand online voter registration and early balloting, update electronic voting equipment as first-generation voting machines grow obsolete, and share voter registration records across state lines to protect against fraud.

    The 112-page report also suggests improvements in the more traditional ways Americans have cast ballots. Those include increasing the number of schools used as polling places, simplifying voting for members of the military and other Americans living overseas through better access to state websites, and insuring that polling places are close to voters’ homes.


    Together the recommendations present a comprehensive, if unsurprising, list of ways to making voting easier for millions of Americans, a promise President Obama made on the night of his reelection. The suggestions, all of them tested at the state level, occupy what is perhaps the safest ground in the partisan debate over elections in America, avoiding the more politically treacherous proposals surrounding online voting, same-day registration, and other issues that could doom the report before it receives a full hearing.

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    The report will become part of a broader political debate over voting rights in the United States as the two major parties argue over how simple it should be for Americans to register and cast ballots while also protecting against fraud. Last week, lawmakers from both parties presented an amendment to the Voting Rights Act that proposes stricter voter ID requirements, among other steps, to change the landmark 1965 law.

    Obama, who appointed the commission, called its suggestions ‘‘eminently glittering’’ after receiving them Wednesday, and said the White House intends ‘‘to reach out to stakeholders all across the country to make sure that we can implement’’ the commission’s report.

    ‘‘One of the troubling aspects of the work that they did was hearing from local officials indicating that we could have even more problems in the future if we don’t act now,’’ Obama said before meeting with commission members at the White House.

    Although access to the polls has historically been a contentious political issue, who should vote and how easy it should be to do so has in recent years emerged again as a highly contested partisan question.


    Republicans have argued that the federal government should not be involved in voting issues, given that administering elections is largely the responsibility of states. But Democrats have identified threats to voting access that some believe require a federal response, particularly issues involving state and local practices that have made registering to vote more difficult.

    Last year, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in a ruling that said Congress had not sufficiently taken into account the nation’s progress on issues of race in deciding which states require federal oversight to ensure that the voting rights of minorities are protected. The ruling affected many Southern states that have become reliable Republican strongholds.

    The election commission left aside the issue of race in assessing access to voting places and wait times for casting ballots.

    But it did say that bilingual poll workers should be available ‘‘to any polling place with a significant number of voters who do not speak English,’’ a suggestion likely to concern Republicans who have complained that the commission is a way to drive up traditionally Democratic votes. Latino voters, who make up 10 percent of the electorate, favored Obama by more than 40 percentage points over Mitt Romney in the last presidential election.

    ‘‘We discovered, as officials, experts and members of the public from across the country testified, that voters’ expectations are remarkably uniform and transcend differences of party and political perspective,’’ the 10-member commission wrote in the report’s cover letter. ‘‘The electorate seeks above all modern, efficient and responsive administrative performance in the conduct of elections.’’


    The commission recommended only changes that have been implemented at the state level, both those with Democratic and Republican majorities. The proposal to expand online registration for example, has been adopted in 15 states, an almost even number of them red and blue.