Here’s How the Nation’s Elections Clearinghouse is Gearing Up for the Midterms
The chair of the Election Assistance Commission is encouraging individuals to sign up as poll workers.
The nation's elections clearinghouse turns 20 this year and has been helping states and localities prepare for the midterm elections using lessons learned from previous election cycles as well as encouraging individuals to become part of the voting process, says its chair.
“We're not the biggest agency, we don't have the biggest budget, but I think that we do a good job of getting information down to the locals through the states,” Thomas Hicks, a commissioner of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission since 2014 who is currently serving as the group’s chair, told Government Executive in a recent interview. “I don't know what the next 20 years would look like, but I would say that it remains an independent bipartisan agency with the goal of helping Americans cast ballots, have those ballots counted accurately, and also for election officials to be able to get information.”
Next month will be the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Help America Vote Act, which made vast reforms to the voting process following issues identified after the contentious 2000 election. That law established the Election Assistance Commission, which has four commissioners and nearly 50 staff.
In addition to serving as a clearinghouse, the EAC adopts voluntary voting system guidelines and certifies voting systems. In its two-decades of existence the EAC has dealt with staffing and funding shortages and House Republicans trying to abolish it. Additionally, in the past few years it has been operating amid conspiracy theories and false information about the 2020 presidential election spread by some lawmakers and the former president himself as well as threats against election and poll workers.
The highlights from the interview are below. The full version of the interview will be on a forthcoming episode of Government Executive’s daily podcast.
On what the EAC is doing to help state and local election officials prepare for the midterm elections.
With the primary and general and basically any election that they want to try to get any information from us, we are doing a number of things. One goes toward our main function of a clearinghouse. So, we gather information from smaller jurisdictions or from other jurisdictions and disseminate that out. The other big piece that I love about our agency now is that after 2020, and during 2020, we hired some subject matter experts on a number of issues and they have been cranking things for people to use. For instance, how do you conduct an audit? Setting up a polling place? We've worked with the University of Rhode Island on that. But there's a number of little things. So, when you say, what have we done? It makes me laugh because it's from voter registration all the way to election night reporting [that] we have been giving information [on] to the states.
On vote by mail, a contentious topic in the lead-up to the 2020 election and the subject of many elections-related conspiracy theories.
I would say that it's worked pretty well since it was first implemented for the Civil War for soldiers. Also, I want to highlight that all jurisdictions have some form of vote by mail and that's because of the military aspect of it… I think that there's a lot of misconceptions about what vote by mail is, but it's basically something that allows people to cast their ballots in a different way, as opposed to showing up at the polling place. And there's a number of safeguards put in place to ensure that if I cast one ballot, that's the ballot that's going to be caught…. One of the big pieces today at [a conference Hicks attended] was the Postal Service. They were here talking about Election Day mail and ensuring that it's received on time and so forth. So, every jurisdiction is different, in terms of vote by mail whether or not they just drop boxes or whether or not they have Election Day as a deadline to get that in or a few days after allowing the Postal Service to get it in, but to make sure that it's postmarked to ensure that people aren't voting on that Friday after the election and so forth.
On working with the Postal Service and other federal agencies.
If you had told me before 2020 that we would be working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, like what happened that we're working with that agency? But we work with a number of different agencies, [such as] the [Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency] and the Postal Service, but also the Federal Voting Assistance Program that's housed out of the Department of Defense…We have worked with both White Houses in the Trump and Biden administrations on some issues…With the issues of election security for election workers, we've worked with a number of different agencies that have the three letters in them to ensure that election officials still have safety when they're just doing their jobs.
On funding and resources for the Election Assistance Commission for fiscal 2023.
I believe that whatever money we get to run the agency, we're going to use that to the utmost to ensure we do the best job we can for the taxpayers overall. But I would say that there is always a need for more funding to us because our jobs have expanded since 2016: combating mis- and dis-information, combating other issues that came about in 2020, but also the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines that we approved last February, February of ‘21; they're being implemented now and so for those to be done, we want to make sure that we have adequate staffing levels. One thing that's been truly hard for our agency–– but we've done what we can to ensure that this is done quickly and accurately––is [the work of our] grants team. When Congress has appropriated us money to ensure that that money gets out quickly and under the correct formula. We have a dedicated staff, but I think of it as they move mountains to ensure that states are getting the adequate funding. The inspector general's office will look at that to ensure that the money was being spent well or being spent appropriately. The overall aspect of money I think is an interesting one, but I think of it as we're going to do our part and hopefully Congress will fund us at an accurate level.
On challenges that some states have had in obtaining their money for election administration and security and hopes for more action from the federal government.
From an EAC perspective, I would say that individuals can become more involved, [such as to] serve as a poll worker. There's a lot of folks who looked at the issues from 2018 and 2020 and said various things, but this is an opportunity for them to become part of the process…Yes, we are going to do what we can within our budget constraints to help people cast their ballot and have those ballots counted accurately. But this is a great opportunity for other folks to jump in and be a part of American democracy. We have a lot of folks who say that they love our country, but here's an opportunity to show that love.
On navigating the political attacks on free and fair elections.
Well, I’m wearing my Tom Hicks hat and not my EAC hat. There’s been a few individuals who've talked about having the EAC folded into one of these other agencies, like CISA. I think that would be a huge mistake because we are an independent agency. There's two Democrats here. There's two Republicans. If we can get a three vote on anything, moving forward, that's a win and that shows that it's a bipartisan effort for things. We usually get 4-0 because of these issues. But if it was rolled into an agency where the president would have control over that, in terms of appointments, in terms of hiring and firing or just basically dictating the agenda of that agency, I think that that would be a huge problem for an independent agency, like the EAC.
The agency's been around 20 years come October with the signing of the Help America Vote Act. I don't know what the next 20 years would look like, but I would say that it remains an independent bipartisan agency with the goal of helping Americans cast of ballots, have those ballots counted accurately, and also for election officials to be able to get information. We're not the biggest agency, we don't have the biggest budget, but I think that we do a good job of getting information down to the locals through the states.
Anything else to add?
The voluntary voting system guidelines, I think, are huge. We're going to be building toward new equipment, [not that] the equipment that we have now is bad or anything like that, but I think that once you go toward something new, it should be more accurate. It should be more secure. And one of my big pieces is those folks who have disabilities to ensure that they can still vote independently and privately as well and with whatever new technology we have out there. In terms of the general election, I would say for folks to check their registration now to ensure that they are registered to vote and if they're not to register and then once they're doing the registration process to sign up as a poll worker…If you see something that's going wrong with an election and that's raised, has it been rectified and fixed? And so, we will see problems in November. Any election that's been held has had one or two problems. Is that a reason to say that the results are not legitimate or fraudulent? No.