Federal Election Reform and the EAC, a case of “Ready! FIRE! Aim!”?

All indications are, a decade after the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), the federal government is again seriously ready to tackle election reform.  Clearly the President has reform on his agenda based upon his remarks in his Inaugural Speech when he said, “…our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.”  In Congress, a half dozen election reform bills have already been filed.   The Nation reports that democratic leadership has made election reform a legislative priority in both the House and Senate.  After years of election legislation at the state level, which notably has given us Voter ID and stricter voter registration regulations, the feds appear ready to weigh in.

Without offering an opinion on the substance of any of the proposed legislation, it seems to me there is something out of sequence in the process.  Congress, through HAVA, created the US Election Assistance Commission (EAC) as a federal agency to address on-going election issues in the wake of the 2000 election.  Congress was hesitant to grant much responsibility to the new agency thus contributing to the Agency falling short of its promise and potential.   For more than a year now, the agency has been languishing with severe budget cuts, without any Commissioners or Executive Director and has not taken any substantive actions.

HAVA limited the role of the EAC to dispersing and accounting for federal funds for new voting technology, setting voting system technical standards, selectively granting research funds for a limited set of election topics and acting as an information clearinghouse.  HAVA funds have been distributed, spent and audited, although the success of the programs is uncertain.  The EAC has created a voting technology bottleneck by failing to issue standards in a timely manner and by encumbering an already lengthy voting system certification program.  Many EAC funded research projects have not been released because of partisan squabbling over the findings.

The original Commissioners took a timid approach and permitted the culture and personalities of the national elections community in its hiring decisions and in the way it chose to fulfill its charter.  The record of the EAC has been disappointing to supporters and critics of the agency alike.

Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to me, as Ready! AIM! Fire! implies, that Congress and the Administration should look to reforming, re-chartering and re-staffing the EAC as the first step in any federal election reform.  As election reform has proven to be an important and persistent national issue, it makes sense to grant broader authority to the EAC rather than disband it as has been repeatedly proposed.

The EAC is not the authoritative voice representing the functions of and policies for conducting elections in the US.  Imagine if Congress consulted with all 50 states and their National Guard bureaus and professional organizations as the primary source of input and expertise into decisions regarding national defense rather than the federal Department of Defense.   Presently, consulting with the states and professional associations is what Congress does for federal election reform.

It seems reasonable that Congress would look to reforming and re-chartering the EAC to be the authoritative source of input for Congress, regarding election reform.  To do otherwise, would be short sighted and nonsensically juxtapose the well known military command “Ready! FIRE! Aim!”

Stay tuned

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Photo courtesy of Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

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4 thoughts on “Federal Election Reform and the EAC, a case of “Ready! FIRE! Aim!”?

  1. HAVA itself rubbed dangerously up against all principles of federalism and the enumerated and delegated powers enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Further federal enchroachment into state sovereignty over elections is risky, unwise, and I’d submit, constitutionally infirm, especially given a Roberts court. The President seems intent on remaking the society – the Constitution be damned. I guess elections is as good a place to start as any.

    When I look at the pattern of where lines became most onerous, I see locales where minority voters especially may vote casually in state and local elections, but became unusually motivated with a Presidential candidate that motivated them beyond all history used to allocate electoral resources. This atypical motivation (in 2008 and 2012) SHOULD have been anticipated by local officials, but wasn’t. It is as bad a mistake to scale infrastructure for the exceptional as it is to ignore likely changes that new realities create. We can be neither a slave to, nor ignorant of, likely changes in turnout brought about by unusual circumstances. If “2008 and 2012 only” voters go back to their usual (non)voting pattern, resources newly realllocated will be resources squandered. Short version: anticipate turnout changes and plan accordingly, within legal prescriptions. History may be prologue, but blindness is still unwise.

    How does one anticipate the impact on infrastructure of a community whose voting turnout behavior typically hovers around 25%, and then zooms to 80%+ when a racially attractive candidate appears? It’s not an easy problem. New federal anti-waiting-line mandates will quickly result in poll workers nodding off due to no activity in off-year elections, and crabby local taxpayers saddled with the bill.

    Consider one college town precinct in my home county.

    Year 2008 – 2277 votes
    Year 2009 – 197 votes
    Year 2010 – 715 votes
    Year 2011 – 261 votes
    Year 2012 – 1636 votes
    Year 2004 – (for more historical context) 919 votes

    YOU plan infrastructure for that kind of thing. Monday morning quarterbacking is cheap and easy. When all of a sudden, turnout more than doubles from one Presidential cycle to the next, you’re GOING TO HAVE LINES!

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    1. Kurt;

      Sincere thanks for taking the time to thoughtfully respond to the issues and questions the blog triggered for you. There is always more than one way to examine an issue.

      I have to admit that I was squeemish about the constitutionality of HAVA when I was working on the task force of election officials that gave input to Congress. I had, and still have, questions about the wisdom of federal involvement in elections. I have startled many when I have said that there is no such thing as a federal “election” as all elections are conducted by states and include contests for federal “office.” In any case, the argument that Article 1, Sections 4 and 5 give Congress authority to regulate the elections for its members has carried the day. In fact, in Section 4 give Congress authority to overide state election statutes and regulations: “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.”

      In terms of fluctuating turnout and anticipation of lines (and the altering of precinct boundaries which you address in another comment), you have identified the some of the challenges and conundrums election administrators face. BTW, I am not a Monday morning quarterback on election administration issues. I have scores of elections under my belt and would say, using the turnout information you provided, there is a known pattern which must be planned for and anticipated at that specific location. To be caught by surprise by lines during a Presidential election when having such data would be irresponsible.

      Don’t get me started about the cost of elections- as a decorated combat veteran I get wound up about it. Managing elections, the expression of the consent of the governed which is embodied in the “we the people” in the Constitution, on the cheap undermines our form of government and disrespects those who have and contiue to defend and protect it. Freedom is not free nor are elections.

      Please continue reading and commenting. I value your perspective as do other readers of this blog.

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      1. Regarding the big fluctuation turnout precinct, yes, NOW there is sufficient data to anticipate a quadrennial spike, but what about in 2008? There was nothing in the area’s history to suggest such a thing. I do believe the Obama ’08 campaign must shoulder a measure of the blame in some places, due to the unprecedented emphasis on getting students to register on-campus, as opposed to at their family homes. One who helps cause a mess shouldn’t be allowed to get away with demagoguing the existence of a mess. That’d be like letting my 17 year old son complain about how crummy his room looks. Similarly, when Karl Rove politicized the Amish and Mennonites to an unprecedented level in 2004, the long lines in rural Lancaster County, PA didn’t just happen by magic. Sometimes we let the “perps” mouth off too much; we shouldn’t.

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  2. This is especially the case in a state like Pennsylvania, in which creating new precincts, or even realigning precinct boundaries, involves a full blown court trial, with lawyers, mandated advertising including signs on trees and utility poles in affected areas (no exaggeration), and the taking of county solicitors off of other business. One cannot simply change precincts willy-nilly, even if you DO anticipate turnout spikes. By the time 2008’s turnout could have been anticipated by the huge number of new registrations in the precinct above, the period for precinct creation trials had closed.

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