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Senate Moves on Election Commission

Senators signaled their commitment this week to move quickly on the nominations of four individuals to the new Election Assistance Commission — a step experts say will be critical in ensuring that states are up to speed for 2004 balloting.

Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) promised at a hearing Tuesday morning that the commissioners would be confirmed before the Senate recesses for the year and lauded the newly created agency as valuable tool for state and local election officials that “will not be mired down in the minutia of rulemaking.”

Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also attended part of Tuesday’s hearing and pledged his support to ensure that the Help America Vote Act of 2002, signed into law one year ago today, gets full funding “in time to make a difference for the ’04 election.”

Last week, “in cahoots” with Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.), as McConnell put it, he successfully spearheaded a move to “bust the budget” to get an additional $1 billion in funding for the law added to the Senate’s 2004 Transportation, Treasury appropriations bill. But he added that additional monies are still needed.

Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) said the new board, which is to serve as a national clearinghouse and resource for federal elections, will provide the framework to help the “wounds of 2000 [to] heal” and restore “confidence in America’s electoral system.”

The nominees, meanwhile, appeared ready to get down to work.

“Partnership is one of the key words here,” said Gracia Hillman, a former executive director of the League of Women Voters and one of two Democrats nominated to the commission. Hillman, who was chosen by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for a two-year term, said she believes that by working together, the commission and localities can develop a “best practices” guide to administering elections.

“This is not just an exceptional career opportunity,” Hillman said, explaining that she considers the chance to serve on the Election Assistance Commission a way to help preserve the “fiber of democracy.”

Each of the EAC members will earn $134,000 annually and generally serve 4-year terms and may be reappointed once. However, under the law, two of the initial appointees to the EAC — one Republican and one Democrat — were designated to a two-year term, while the other two nominees were appointed for four years.

Appointments to the commission are made by the president based on recommendations by the Senate Majority Leader, the House Speaker, the Senate Minority Leader and the House Minority Leader.

In addition to overseeing the distribution of grants to states, the EAC will work with state and local election officials to develop voluntary voting system guidelines and provide for the testing and certification of voting system hardware and software. While the new law provides funding to help states replace their punch-card and lever voting systems, it’s up to the counties to decide on the sort of upgraded equipment they want to buy.

The nominees to the new commission outlined even broader goals for themselves.

Republican nominee Paul DeGregorio, a former St. Louis County elections director and the current executive vice president of the International Foundation for Election Systems, discussed the notion that the United States could also stand to improve the way it administers elections from a personnel perspective.

“There are a lot of countries that actually do a better job than the United States of America in finding good people to work the polls,” said DeGregorio, who has monitored elections in countries as far away as Russia.

DeGregorio was appointed to a two-year term.

Dodd asked the nominees how they planned to respond to a recent study by the General Accounting Office showing that “over 80 percent of all polling places” are “inaccessible to people who have significant disabilities.”

Raymundo Martinez, another Democratic pick who will serve a four-year term on the body, told Dodd and others that he is committed to making sure that disabled individuals have access to polling places and the ability to cast their vote like anyone else.

“It is one of the most important obligations we have,” said Martinez, an Austin attorney and lobbyist for Harris County at the state Capitol. “We have an obligation to look at these problems and use what resources we have to move forward.”

GOP pick DeForest “Buster” Soaries Jr., a former New Jersey secretary of state and an ordained Baptist minister who ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) in 2002, also pledged his commitment to making sure voting places are accessible.

“My experience is that polling places stay the same forever,” Soaries said, explaining that it will be up to the EAC to provide leadership so that modernization of elections includes the needs those with disabilities.

Soaries, however, is not one to sit by and let things stagnate.

As the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in New Brunswick, N.J., Soaries helped to spearhead fundraising for a new $10 million church complex and watched the church’s membership swell from 1,500 to 6,000 people.

His entrée into politics, according to a 1999 New York Times profile, came by chance when he was seated next to Ed Rollins, a GOP consultant who helped elect Reagan, was advising then-little-known New Jersey gubernatorial candidate named Christine Todd Whitman.

When Rollins later became embroiled in scandal amid accusations that he had paid off black ministers to suppress the black vote on Election Day by encouraging parishioners to stay home, Soaries — who had endorsed defeated Gov. Jim Florio (D) in the race — stood by Whitman and rallied other black ministers behind her.

Soaries was later appointed secretary of state — though he has remained a preacher at First Baptist through his tenure in that office.

Other nominees to the commission bring equally impressive credentials and resumes.

Martinez, a former general counsel for the Texas Association of Urban Counties, also performed a number of jobs in the Clinton administration, including working as deputy director for intergovernmental affairs at the White House.

In addition to serving as an executive with the League of Women Voters, Hillman served as the State Department’s first coordinator of international women’s issues, she served on EMILY’s List’s steering committee and was a member of the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Leadership Forum.

DeGregorio, meanwhile, has held a variety of positions over the years and according to Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), who introduced him at Tuesday’s Rules panel hearing, “has a genuine enthusiasm for elections.”

Prior to working for the International Foundation for Election Systems in Washington, D.C., DeGregorio was in charge of outreach for the University of Missouri at St. Louis but also monitored elections abroad. He is an international elections expert who has assisted developing countries in revamping their voting procedures.

During the presidential election debacle of 2000, the longtime Republican activist was asked by the Bush-Cheney team to go to Broward County, Fla., to lend his expertise during the recount of the heavily Democratic area by helping to train recount observers.