The End of the Election Assistance Commission?

by Nate Crippes, Dean Searcy // Published May 31, 2011
Capitol Building

The future of the Election Assistance Commission, an independent bipartisan government agency tasked with making elections fair and accessible, is in question. Amid the intense debate in Washington over government spending, this small agency could be terminated, some of its tasks being relegated to the Federal Elections Commission, in order to save the taxpayers $14 million a year. In the United State House of Representatives, H.R. 672, a bill introduced by Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS), seeks to terminate the EAC. The bill has made it through the Committee on House Administration along party lines, and will now move to the House for a vote.

The EAC was given a three-year mandate by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), which was created in the wake of the disastrous (from a voting rights perspective) 2000 Presidential election. At the time, Congress sought to quench the thirst of voting rights advocates and restore public confidence in US elections with the passage of HAVA. The Act was an important step in the modernization of election administration. On top of creating the EAC, HAVA also replaced outdated voting technology such as punch cards and lever-pulling, established minimum national election administration standards for poll training and registration (although these minimum standards were left largely to state interpretation), and the EAC was to help the states in reaching these minimum standards set by Congress.

Unfortunately for the EAC, the Republicans on the Committee believe the agency has outlived its purpose, going well beyond its original three-year mandate. Rep. Harper referring to it as a "bloated bureaucracy," and would go on to paraphrase Ronald Reagan's quote, "[T]here is nothing closer on earth to eternal life than a temporary government agency." However, the lack of a powerful federal elections authority on standards and best practices leaves federal election outcomes in the hands of fifty different bodies each with their own goals, prerogatives, and budgets. Clearly, uniformity, an important component of successful administration, is distinctly lacking. For the sake of simplicity, we believe the Elections Assistance Commission should not only be preserved, but that it should be made more dynamic and authoritative in order to improve national voter confidence and clamp down on the piles of bureaucracy generated by a lack of federal power in the field of election administration.

The EAC has a massively important role as the primary clearinghouse for everything related to nationwide election administration, i.e. the best practices. However, even though the EAC has all this pertinent information, it's not allowed to mandate the states to follow anything close to the best practices, stripping the EAC of much of its ability to actually improve the election process. Further, the use of these best practices, which would-by definition-reduce disenfranchisement and increase election efficiency, are also voluntary. In the Committee, Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-TX) introduced amendments that would not only keep the EAC, but also improve it through legislation.  The amendments called for the Government Accountability Office to review the EAC, and to provide analysis so that the agency could be improved.  Again, unfortunately for the EAC, these amendments were voted down along party lines.  

The Committee heard much testimony, including many Secretaries of State and state election officials. While the Secretaries of State testimony was relied on in moving the bill forward, the people on the ground, the election officials, found the EAC to be an extremely helpful agency (for example,  Sacramento Registrar  Ms. LaVine).  Furthermore, while Rep. Harper is convinced that the FEC can take over the duties of the EAC, some others are less convinced. The president of the Leadership Conference of Civil and Human Rights, Wade Henderson, called it "overworked, partisan, and ineffective." This is perhaps evidence that a GAO study is worthy of more consideration.  

Moreover, simply looking at how other countries administer elections and their associated results suggests a possible way for the US to balance its democracy deficit. When it comes to states administering their own elections, we are the exception rather than the rule in the international community. A large majority of countries have their elections planned and executed by the central government, reducing the occurrence of unplanned disenfranchisement and convoluted state-by-state differentiations. For example, several other industrialized countries such as PortugalSpain , France, Australia, and others all rely on the central government to administer elections. In addition, these countries typically enjoy less electoral bureaucracy and greater ease of voting - including the use of voter proxies and automatic registration for all citizens 18 years of age or older.

The EAC is performing an essential duty, but doesn't have the teeth necessary to sufficiently improve the uniformity, credibility, or confidence in election results. We believe, along with Rep. Gonzalez and others, that this agency can be improved.  Understanding that each state has its own unique electoral climate and needs, we aren't recommending the federal government completely control all aspects of federal elections within the states. We are simply advocating the retaining and improving of a federal authority.  That authority will identify and uphold higher standards for elections throughout the nation, a move which can only help voter confidence by generating uniformity for federal elections and preventing voter restrictions, such as voter ID laws and felon disenfranchisement, which are known to bar millions of voters from participating in a fundamental aspect of our democracy, the right to vote.