A federal agency created to restore confidence in the election process in the wake of Bush v. Gore sits all but leaderless as the country approaches Election Day.
As local election officials scramble to sort out last-minute issues — Palm Beach County, Fla., for example, recently hired dozens of workers to hand copy about 27,000 misprinted absentee ballots — the U.S. Election Assistance Commission operates, on its 10th anniversary, as a shell of what Congress designed it to be.
Its four commissioner spots are vacant. The executive director resigned last year. Its general counsel left in May. It has lacked a quorum to conduct official business for almost two years. Congressional gamesmanship has hamstrung the commission by neither giving it necessary resources nor eliminating it outright.
“It’s a national embarrassment that this agency, whose only mission is to provide information, doesn’t have a single commissioner,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine.
Congress created the commission as part of a larger effort to support state- level election procedures in the aftermath of the contested 2000 presidential election and the subsequent Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore. President George W. Bush signed the Help America Vote Act into law in October 2002, just days after it passed the House and Senate with broad bipartisan support.
The EAC has two Democratic commissioners and two Republican commissioners who are recommended by Congressional leaders, nominated by the White House and confirmed by the Senate. It was given more than $3 billion to dole out to states for improved election administration. Other responsibilities include acting as a repository of effective election processes, developing voluntary voting-system guidelines, setting up procedures to certify the laboratories that test voting equipment and ensuring that states are upgrading their technology.
The original commissioners say they took the agency’s bipartisan mission seriously. Former Republican Commissioner Paul DeGregorio recalls meeting with Democratic Commissioner Gracia Hillman at a Washington, D.C., Starbucks before they were confirmed. The pair said they didn’t want the agency to resemble the Federal Election Commission, which has become emblematic of Washington gridlock.
“The four of us had that in the back of our minds, the partisan bickering and the 3-to-3 votes on the FEC,” DeGregorio said in a recent interview.
“We knew that we were there representing our party affiliation, but we wanted to work in a bipartisan way,” Hillman said.
The commissioners’ desire to achieve consensus was not as popular outside the agency, even with some designees on its advisory boards. During DeGregorio’s final year on the commission, those familiar with the agency’s work said he was getting “unnecessary grief” for not being “Republican enough.”
A movement started to ensure that DeGregorio would not be re-nominated and instead be replaced by a more partisan commissioner. The “ringleader,” according to multiple sources, was Hans von Spakovsky, a legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who was then a Justice Department attorney who sat on one of the commission’s boards. Von Spakovsky called the charges “silly back street stories that have been repeated for years.”
“Nobody at the White House would even have thought to call me to ask who should be a commissioner on the EAC,” von Spakovsky said in an interview.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.