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!”
Photo courtesy of Reuters/Lucy Nicholson