Problems Plague New Election Commissioners

Posted January 23, 2004 at 5:12pm

For the first time in his professional career, DeForest “Buster” Soaries doesn’t have a secretary — but that’s the least of his worries.

As the first chairman of the newly assembled Election Assistance Commission, Soaries is concerned that his agency lacks the most basic tools — permanent office space, e-mail, cellphones and money — needed to accomplish its mission of helping implement election reforms in time for the 2004 elections.

“On Jan. 5, we discovered that we had no office. We had no administrative setup. We had no budget that was adequate to do much more than pay our salaries and perhaps rent,” explained Soaries, a GOP appointee who was confirmed with three other nominees in December, nearly 14 months after President Bush signed the Help America Vote Act into law.

Worse, Soaries and others say the commission has been stymied in its efforts to initiate one of its most basic and important tasks — distributing the bulk of the federal grant money authorized to states by HAVA — because of bureaucratic red tape. He worries that the agency is sorely underfunded. While the law requires the commission to hire an executive director and general counsel, Soaries doesn’t believe there’s enough money to do it in the agency’s $2 million operating budget.

“My church has a bigger budget than the EAC,” said Soaries, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, N.J., and the Garden State’s secretary of state from 1999 to 2002. “And my church certainly doesn’t have the mission of fixing federal elections.”

Since HAVA’s enactment, only $650 million of the $3.86 billion authorized by Congress has been distributed to states through the General Services Administration, but Soaries and the other new commissioners quickly learned that to get more money moving they’d have to publish the states’ plans for using the funds in the Federal Register. That is expected to cost about $800,000.

Federal Register publishing costs alone could conceivably eat up nearly half the organization’s budget — a problem that has not gone unnoticed by Capitol Hill lawmakers overseeing the new law and the commission.

“Clearly [$2 million] will not be enough,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said during a telephone press conference with reporters Friday.

Hoyer said he and House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) plan to discuss the situation with House and Senate appropriators to see if “perhaps if we have some interim funding needs that we include those in any kind of supplementals.”

“Clearly we want to make sure the EAC has the resources to pursue its very important responsibilities,” Hoyer said.

Hoyer said that language in the omnibus spending bill passed last week gives the GSA authority to distribute “for a short period of time” an additional $800 million in grant money to states.

“GSA will now have the authority to get some of that money out the door,” Hoyer said. “The balance will be distributed by the EAC and hopefully mostly by formula, and hopefully that will be done in a very quick manner, because states clearly need the resources.”

In addition to overseeing the distribution of grants to states, the commission 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.

A report issued last week by the D.C.-based Election Reform Information Project examining election changes found mixed results across the 50 states.

The report said many states have been slow to develop statewide voter registration databases — which are aimed at ensuring only legitimate voters cast votes — and in 22 states, punch-card voting machines will still be used in elections in at least some counties.

The report stated that several states had delayed their requests for proposals to build voter registration databases “because of the uncertainly of federal funding and the delay in the formation of the Election Assistance Commission.”

Mississippi state election Director Leslie Scott told the report’s authors that the state had developed a proposal for such a database but was delaying release until receiving the rest of its funds from the commission.

In the meantime, Soaries and his fellow commissioners are making do the best they can — holdings discussions and planning sessions via conference calls and relying on the kindness of the Federal Election Commission and other government agencies.

Last week, the FEC gave the four EAC commissioners ID badges so they can get into federal buildings without a problem, and Soaries said GSA is on the hunt for affordable office space. Until then, the EAC is borrowing some rooms in another federal agency, but that space is only available through March 20.

Each day seems to bring a new headache for the EAC, and seemingly simple tasks — such as establishing a Web site or holding an official meeting or hiring staffers — have often felt like monumental efforts.

Soaries said the commission has been unable to have an official meeting thus far because it is still figuring out how to comply with the federal Sunshine Act.

“We’ve had conference calls, discussions, planning sessions, but we haven’t had a meeting,” Soaries said. “I am the chairman only because we’ve agreed when we meet I’ll be the chairman.”

Soaries is puzzled about the four former FEC employees — who served in the FEC’s Office of Election Administration — now assigned to his commission.

“We now have four people who come to work each day and are transferred to us — and there is no us,” he said.

In addition to Soaries, the other commissioners are Republican appointee Paul DeGregorio, former St. Louis County, Mo., elections director and vice president for the International Foundation for Election Systems; Democratic appointee Gracia Hillman, a former executive director of the League of Women Voters; and Democrat Raymundo Martinez, an Austin attorney and lobbyist for Harris County at the Texas state Capitol.

Soaries insists he is optimistic, however.

“The only reason it’s not completely frustrating is because I believe that the White House and the Congress understand the importance of coming to our rescue and really will resolve this,” Soaries said.

Hoyer blamed some of the ongoing issues on the protracted appointment process last year.

“Clearly the appointment process was slow. Very frankly it was slow on both sides of the aisle. Both parties didn’t get to grips with who were going to be recommended and the White House didn’t move as quickly as possible,” Hoyer said, though he attributed the slow pace more to “lethargy than any kind of intentional action.”

To date, a total of $3 billion has been appropriated toward implementation of HAVA.

“We have another $800 million to go,” Hoyer said. “We’re hopeful the president will include that in his budget. Considering budget constraints that we face, I’m very pleased with how far we’ve gone and how quickly we got there.”