The beleaguered Election Assistance Commission is weathering new criticism amid charges it mishandled a controversial and expensive voting study, again drawing scrutiny from Congress and outside groups just as the agency battles back from recent allegations that it stumbled in overseeing voting machine testing labs.
The current controversy is over the politically sensitive issue of voter identification laws.
At best, critics say the agency unnecessarily delayed publicizing findings of a voter identification project that was released only 10 days ago and shows that some state laws significantly disenfranchise black and Hispanic voters. At worst, experts suggest the commission yielded to political pressure, attempting to bury the uncomfortable conclusions of a poorly managed study that sapped the tiny agency’s resources — and still didn’t yield the data the EAC must by law provide.
In 2005, Rutgers University signed a two-project deal with the commission worth $560,002, according to a copy of the signed contract obtained by Roll Call. The EAC, which was created by 2002’s Help America Vote Act, contracted the university’s Eagleton Institute of Politics to produce research supporting the “development of guidelines on topics of provisional voting and voter identification procedures.”
In short, EAC officials, who set aside roughly 5 percent of the agency’s fiscal 2005 budget for the study, thought they were commissioning a survey of voter identification procedures across the country.
But with the check cashed, on June 28, 2006, EAC officials got more — and less — than they bargained for. Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute and Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law submitted research titled “Best Practices to Improve Voter Identification Requirements,” which commission officials claim is a slight detour from Rutgers’ original marching orders.
The study was released 10 days ago at the insistence of Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), who oversees the EAC’s budget on the House Appropriations Committee.
“We asked them to analyze problems and challenges, and to come up with different answers to problems and challenges of having voter identification law,” said Caroline Hunter, a Republican-nominated EAC commissioner who took her seat on the EAC in March. “What we ended up getting was a little bit different from what we originally asked for.”
Hunter continued: “It’s fair to say the original request did not ask them to study the effect of identification on [voter] turnout. Now, whether it evolved into that is another story. Originally that wasn’t part of the contract.”
Commission officials declined to elaborate specifically on subsequent discussions with Rutgers on the project, other than to confirm that university researchers approached the agency about shifting the study’s focus and that the EAC agreed.
“I don’t think anyone here is saying we weren’t a part of the conversation,” Hunter said.
But once the study was complete, Hunter said, the agency did take issue with the allegedly faulty math used to conduct the research, and that may have doomed the study right out of the gate regardless of its conclusion.
“It was a methodology that we had concerns with,” Hunter said. “The way that it was done, there were some concerns.”
Tim Vercellotti, a Rutgers political science professor who co-directs the Eagleton Institute, disputes Hunter’s charge that the study cherry-picked statistics to show a relationship between voter identification laws and voter participation, a correlation that may or may not exist.
While the agency is well within its rights to decide what research it issues as guidelines, Vercellotti said, there is no doubt the study’s methodology is sound. What also appears certain, he suggested, is the issue’s ability to strike controversy along constitutional and racial grounds.
“I speak for the research team that worked on the project,” Vercellotti said. “It’s a solid piece of social science research, but it’s being released into a very political environment.”
Vercellotti added: “People are very sensitive about the implications of [voter identification requirements] having any relationship to lower voter turnout among any group, but particularly among people of color.”
Another individual familiar with the study, who requested not to be named, said the commission’s unanimous decision not to adopt the Rutgers study had little to do with the study’s science. The EAC simply is having buyer’s remorse for a lightly managed project involving a sensitive subject that is being forced into a politically charged environment.
“This is a bipartisan commission and I suspect this was simply too hot to handle — especially with regards to the Republicans on the commission,” the source said. “If what they were looking for was a different kind of study, the EAC should have been clearer up front on what it wanted.”
While some experts dispute the math, others say the agency’s lack of transparency during the process is troublesome. Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law agrees that while the agency decides what guidelines to adopt, it must disclose its rationale for not disclosing even shoddy results.
“It was a serious mistake for the EAC to withhold this information that was submitted to them at a time when the country has been immersed in debates on these issues at both the state and federal levels and in the courts,” Weiser said. “It seems to me to be highly improper for an agency whose mission is to make information about election administration issues available to the public to suppress or withhold that information. At the time the report was submitted to the EAC, there were voter ID bills pending in roughly half the states to try and create more stringent documentation requirements for voting.”
Weiser concluded: “And they’re using substantial federal dollars to do so.”
An unwillingness to disclose a potentially embarrassing snafu is at the forefront of Hinchey’s concerns. He also wants the agency to release an earlier draft on voter fraud, arguing that study could contain vital information that has remained hidden from public scrutiny.
“The primary concern he has with the EAC has to do with transparency,” said Hinchey spokesman Jeff Lieberson. “And the fact that these studies were commissioned … the public has a right to see what the findings were.”