With Election 2000’s voting debacle still raw, President George W. Bush, in 2002, signed into law the “Help America Vote Act,” which he promised would help “ensure the integrity and efficiency of voting processes in federal elections.”
A key component: the Election Assistance Commission, a new, bipartisan federal agency tasked with adopting voting system guidelines, distributing grants and otherwise aiding states in improving their election processes.
But the little commission soon hit downdrafts. Congress routinely cut its already modest budget. The federal government moved its headquarters from prime digs in downtown Washington, D.C., to a nondescript office tower in suburban Maryland. Then, in 2010, the Election Assistance Commission began a nearly five-year stretch where it lacked enough appointed commissioners to conduct meetings, and, therefore, conduct its most important business. Some members of Congress tried, and failed, to kill what had effectively become a zombie agency.
Now, after years of such turbulence, three of the agency’s four commissioner slots are filled — enough, at least, to function. And today, Thomas Hicks, a Democrat and former attorney for the Committee on House Administration, assumes the Election Assistance Commission’s chairmanship. For Hicks, the post is years coming: President Barack Obama initially nominated him in early 2010, but the U.S. Senate didn’t appoint him to the Election Assistance Commission until late 2014. His challenges are numerous, from helping ensure elections are free and fair to grappling with advocacy groups’ outrage over the actions of his agency’s executive director.
The Center for Public Integrity recently spoke with Hicks about his plans for his one-year chairmanship, which will coincide with 2016 presidential and congressional elections. The interview has been edited for length and clarity: