Soaries: Unafraid to Make Waves at EAC

Posted July 16, 2004 at 6:30pm

Election Assistance Commission Chairman DeForest Soaries has a reputation for shaking things up. But following his recent decision to prod Bush administration officials to plan for the possibility that Election Day might have to be postponed due to a terrorist attack, some on Capitol Hill are wondering whether the Baptist minister-turned-Washington bureaucrat has simply gone too far.

The EAC, created in 2002 by the Help America Vote Act, began operations only this past January. The agency’s mission was seemingly low-key: to serve as “a national clearinghouse and resource for the comparison of information on various matters involving the administration of federal elections.”

To many observers, that sounded like an advisory role on technical matters surrounding the nation’s upgrade to new voting machines.

But while the capabilities of newfangled electronic voting machines do share some overlap with terrorism preparedness — how the machines would respond in an attack against the power grid, for instance, or the need to foil terrorists from hacking into the system — the scope of Soaries’ query, seemingly envisioning an electoral postponement unprecedented in American history, raised eyebrows, and even anger, in many corners of Washington.

For the record, Soaries has insisted that his efforts were mischaracterized by the media. He emphatically denied that he was suggesting that the presidential election be postponed or canceled under any circumstances.

“Anyone who reads HAVA understands the need for the EAC to have information,” Soaries told Roll Call via BlackBerry from Europe, where he was traveling on official business. “My effort to secure information and my offer to assist prepare election officials for Nov. 2 is consistent with the work of the EAC and the mandate of HAVA. The members who are upset must have misunderstood what I said and why I said it.”

In an interview last week with CNN’s Paula Zahn, Soaries said his aim was to coordinate with Homeland Security officials to facilitate coordination and communication between the states and the federal government in the event of a crisis.

But many in Washington have interpreted his actions differently. One GOP leadership aide suggested Soaries may simply have been seeking publicity for himself and his agency when he touched off the controversy.

And a Democratic House aide who has followed the issue closely said that while “people appreciate his decision to look at all aspects of what may happen around November … he may be a little overzealous.” Despite good intentions, the aide said, “the point is, what’s all this stirring the pot going to get us right now, except for scaring people away from the polls?”

In Congress, a bipartisan chorus of lawmakers immediately expressed displeasure at the idea of postponing the election. Some Members, especially Democrats already on edge about the way the contested election in Florida played out in 2000, criticized Soaries for overstepping his bounds.

In a floor speech last week, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said she was “appalled that this request is even being considered.” Woolsey later elaborated in a statement that Soaries’ job “is to protect the integrity of the election process, not usurp local authority.”

By the end of the week, Woolsey had collected 191 signatures from lawmakers for a letter to Ridge explaining their concern and displeasure. The only Republican to sign the letter was Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar who has been in and out of government since the Eisenhower administration, suggested that Soaries may have failed to comprehend how his question — reasonable though it may be — would be received in media and bureaucratic corners.

“Maybe he didn’t know the federal government well enough to know how you deal with these things,” Hess said, characterizing Soaries’ move as “well beyond what the agency, in my judgment, was created to do.”

“It is too bad he or somebody else didn’t realize it could be harmful — both on the signals it was going to give to terrorists [or] the signals it was going to give to other countries, who jumped on it with all the paranoia that is presently displayed against the United States,” Hess said.

Clearly, not everyone in Washington agrees with Woolsey or Hess. The EAC chairman’s defenders believe that blaming Soaries is unfair and misses the point.

“He does not strike me as partisan, and he does not strike me as particularly media-hungry,” said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a Web site that tracks changes in voting systems. “He has been visible — I do not doubt that. From my perch that’s been a way to use free media … to get the word out.”

And in an op-ed column in the Washington Post last Friday, American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein (a Roll Call contributing writer) applauded Soaries for “crystalliz[ing]” a serious threat to democracy.

Amid the firestorm last week, Soaries told reporters that he refused to be stopped by his detractors.

“Those who seek to dismiss the legitimacy of my concerns by ascribing to my initiative partisan, political motives are those who are willing to wait for a crisis to do something about the crisis,” Soaries said. “There is no distraction capable of thwarting my efforts to lead this commission as we insist that America appropriately prepares for the unthinkable but the very possible.”

Soaries’ past shows he is not one to shy away from a controversy. Consider the situation that unfolded in 1993, when Soaries was serving as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in New Jersey and Christine Todd Whitman (R) was running for governor.

Late in the campaign, Soaries was asked to give the invocation at the Somerset County Republican Dinner, and according to The New York Times’ account, Soaries was photographed seated beside Ed Rollins, Whitman’s lead campaign adviser.

All hell broke loose one week after Whitman was elected and the media reported that Rollins had said Republicans helped her win by distributing $500,000 in “walking-around money” to black ministers and others to suppress black turnout.

Soaries decided to take a very public risk. “I called up the governor’s office and I told them that Christie needs to be at the 7 a.m. service in my church on Sunday, and she was there,” he told the Times. Soaries did his part by convincing other black ministers to stand with the governor-elect, he told the Times.

The gambit worked. The crisis passed, and five years later Whitman appointed Soaries as secretary of state — a crucial launching pad for his eventual appointment as EAC chairman.

Even today, Soaries still keeps one foot in the pulpit, returning to his parish in Somerset, N.J., every Sunday to preach.

“In keeping with his background as a minister, he’s actually been very good at preaching the importance of election reform,” said Chapin, who has closely followed Soaries’ moves at the EAC’s helm. “He’s very good at bringing new people into the fold — either media or policymakers.

“I think what happened this week was because [the EAC] has been looking for high-value, low-cost things to make themselves relevant,” Chapin added, noting that the new agency has struggled since its inception to lead the charge on implementing the Help America Vote Act without adequate resources.

The commission has been working with a budget of about $2 million, a little less than half of which is devoted to personnel. Even so, the agency has not been able to find the resources to fill several critical positions, including that of general counsel, executive director and inspector general.

“One of the things Soaries has done an excellent job of is in making the EAC relevant, even though they don’t have a lot of money to spend,” Chapin said.