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Kill the Election Assistance Commission?

Two commissioner nominees languish as Congress mulls axing bedraggled body

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Myrna Perez and Thomas Hicks again sat before a pair of U.S. senators Wednesday for a hearing on their presidential nominations to the Election Assistance Commission.

Their session, however, morphed into a debate on whether this little-known and decidedly bedraggled commission — created by Congress in 2002 to help prevent voting meltdowns like those experienced during the 2000 presidential election — should exist at all.

“The Election Assistance Commission has fulfilled its purpose and should be eliminated,” declared Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, the ranking member of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which conducted the hearing.

He quickly added: “None of my comments are a reflection of the nominees.”

Reflection or not, the nominees find themselves in a political purgatory and legislative limbo soupy as any Congress is stirring.

Consider that Hicks, Democratic senior elections counsel for Congress’ Committee on House Administration, and Perez, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program at the New York University School of Law, have been waiting for senators to confirm them since their initial nominations in early 2010 and early 2011, respectively.

Both are Democrats. Both have previously testified at a Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing. And both say they’ve slogged along because they firmly believe the EAC should exist as an independent, bipartisan body that in large part tests and certifies voting equipment and serves as “national clearinghouse and resource” for election administration.  

“Elections don’t allow for do-overs. Above all else, we must always uphold the public’s trust and ensure confidence in the process,” Hicks told Roberts and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, during his testimony before them. 

“The EAC, if operating well, is a valuable resource to election administrators because of its nationwide scope, targeted focus and expressly delineated responsibilities,” Perez said during her testimony.

The EAC’s reality, however, is marked by leadership vacuums and little sense of purpose.

It’s endowed with almost no regulatory powers. All four commissioner positions and have been vacant since 2011, and it hasn’t conducted a public meeting since then. It hasn’t had a quorum of three commissioners — what’s needed for the EAC to conduct votes, write policy and issue advisory opinions — since 2010. The commission has no permanent executive director or general counsel. It used to distribute grants to states so they may better administer elections. But today, lacking leaders, the EAC no longer make grants.

The “highlights” section of its 2012 annual report includes accomplishments such as “clarified various data reported in the biennial EAC Election Administration and Voting Survey.”

Commission resources, meanwhile, have plummeted. President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget proposal calls for taxpayers to fund the EAC with $11,062,500. The agency is slated to carry 29 full-time positions.

That’s notably down from its funding and staffing levels in 2009, Obama’s first year in office, when it received $17,959,000 and carried 43 full-time positions, budget records show.

And when Obama declared this year he wanted to “identify non-partisan ways to shorten lines at polling places, promote the efficient conduct of elections and provide better access to the polls for all voters,” he didn’t tap the EAC.

Instead, he created the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, to which he named 10 people. His executive order notes that his commission will terminate after it produces a final report to him and “strive to avoid duplicating the efforts of other governmental entities.”

Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., thinks the EAC is such a waste that he's sponsored the Election Assistance Commission Termination Act, which has advanced out of committee but has not passed the full House. "It’s a commission that has far outlived its purpose and yet still wastes millions of tax dollars each year," he told the Center for Public Integrity

King, the other senator attending Wednesday's hearing, acknowledged the “unusual situation” the EAC finds itself in. But he vowed to push the nominations of Hicks and Perez to a committee vote, and then, a vote by the full Senate. Neither are likely to occur before next year.

“It’s our job to find a way to move forward,” King told the nominees.

Roberts remained adamant that the committee conduct a full oversight hearing on the EAC’s efficacy. He noted, however, that Democrats run the Senate and may simply want to keep the commission operating, in which case “it must be balanced” with two Republican nominees.

After the hearing, both Perez and Hicks said they’d welcome GOP colleagues on the EAC, themselves noting that a commission of two is still one commissioner short of a quorum to conduct official business.