Election Assistance Agency Carries On Despite GOP Resistance

Threat of Russian meddling lends urgency to tasks of new chairman.

These could be tumultuous times for the tiny federal agency called the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

In a mid-term election year in which the threat of Russian meddling in American balloting continues as front-page news, the 30-person staff in Silver Spring, Md., with its $9.2 million budget is forging ahead to help states and localities modernize voting equipment, recruit poll workers and make polling stations more accessible.

Some Republican critics in Congress, however, have continued a years-old bid to defund the agency set up in 2002, calling it duplicative and proposing during this year’s continuing budget battle to move some functions to the Federal Election Commission.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., last month raised eyebrows when he declined to renominate Matthew Masterson, a five-year veteran of the body and Republican appointee who was due to rotate off as chairman. (The four-member independent commission, which has one vacancy, is split between Republicans and Democrats.) A Ryan spokeswoman called the personnel decision “routine” and reflecting a desire to “move in a different direction.”

But none of that dampens the enthusiasm of Thomas Hicks, the new chairman sworn in on Feb. 23 for a second stint at the helm. “We are gung-ho about moving forward, making sure that states have what they need in terms of information on cybersecurity and disability access,” he told Government Executive on Monday. “Who knows what the next threat will be?”

As part of its Countdown18 effort, the commission released a new video on March 2, detailing the “broad spectrum of steps election officials take to secure elections.” The new resource is part of the commission’s #Countdown18 effort to provide election officials with the tools necessary to “carry out secure, accessible and efficient” elections.

“We’re just educating folks on the process itself, getting young people involved as poll workers,” added Hicks, an attorney and Capitol Hill veteran. That includes “replacing aging voting equipment and guidance for maintaining them—it’s a huge expense that many states can’t afford.”

The commission is also partnering with election specialists from the public, private and nonprofit sectors to develop by the end of the year “the next iteration of the election system testing and certification guidelines, the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines.” Rooted in 17 core voting system functions, they are envisioned as “the highest standard against which voting systems can be commercially tested in the United States,” EAC said.

Though commission members and staff are barred from lobbying Congress, they are well aware of criticism from such sources as the National Association of Secretaries of State. That bipartisan group of office-holders with final authority over state elections in 2015 affirmed for the third time a resolution calling for an end to the federal commission.

The reasons in the resolution—which a NASS spokeswoman said remain the association’s policy—include the goal of preventing “the EAC from eventually evolving into a regulatory body, contrary to the spirt of the Help America Vote Act” and preserving “the state’s ability to serve as laboratories of change through successful experiments and innovation in election reform.”

Many of those secretaries balked during the 2016 election when the Homeland Security Department under the Obama administration sought to work with states to counter foreign interference and cyberattacks. (President Trump recently complained via Twitter that Obama’s team did little to prevent Russian meddling, though fact-checkers have pointed to several steps to punish Russia that Obama implemented.)

Hicks stressed that his team works regularly with the secretaries of state, citing a new federal Homeland Security Department-run Government Coordinating Council on whose executive committee he sits with eight secretaries of state. “DHS knows security, but doesn’t know elections like we do,” he said. The coordinating council “wouldn’t be as top-notch as it is now without EAC’s knowledge and instructions, and Chairman Masterson guiding us through.”

EAC and DHS teamed up for all-day summit at the National Press Club on Jan. 10 to discuss election security, voting accessibility and how to use election data to improve the voter experience. And despite some indicators that Trump-run agencies such as the State Department have been slow to put in protections against Russian interference, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen last Friday told a conference on critical infrastructure that the department’s cybersecurity priorities included “strengthening the cybersecurity of the election infrastructure.”

The commission’s fate on Capitol Hill may become clear later this month when Congress releases the final language of the two-year budget agreement for fiscal 2018-2019. The House Appropriations panel’s spending plan released last June would have given the EAC 60 days to close shop.

Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., chairman of that panel’s Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, said EAC was simply a go-between for various other agencies. “It’s just there to help agencies talk to one another,” Graves said, accusing the Democrats of using the agency to advance a broader platform aimed at increasing the federal government’s role in the election process. 

The EAC was defended by Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., who argued that “no other federal agency has the capacity, willingness or expertise to effectively absorb these functions.” In a statement to Government Executive on Monday, he added, “Today, perhaps more than at any other time in our nation’s history, state and local election officials are confronted with unique, 21st-century challenges that must be met with reliable federal guidance and support made possible through the Election Assistance Commission. In the face of undeniable Russian meddling and increasingly outdated election infrastructure, it would be reckless to sever communication between local election officials and the EAC.” He called for funding of new cybersecurity EAC grants.

In the appropriations bill that cleared the House last July, report language said, “The committee believes the EAC is no longer effectively carrying out its mandate” and expressed support for a bill from the House Administration Committee to defund it. “At present, one seat of the four-member commission is vacant and the agency has been operating without legislative authorization since 2005,” the GOP report continued. Noting that EAC grants to states and localities have not been funded in years, it said the current work of the commission consists “largely of auditing” past grants and examining voting technologies in ways being performed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and private testing laboratories.

The Senate version of the fiscal 2018 spending plan for EAC offered full funding at $9.2 million, with a mandated transfer of $1.5 million to NIST.

The Trump fiscal 2019 budget released in February called for steady funding at $9.2 million, with no additional funding for grants.

Further plans for the EAC show up in a bipartisan election security bill introduced this December by Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla.; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.,; and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. 

It would reaffirm state leadership in administering elections; task the federal government with promptly sharing election related cybersecurity threats with localities; convene an expert panel to develop voluntary cybersecurity guidelines; provide grants to states; and provide security clearances to appropriate state officials, as well as members and appropriate staff of the Election Assistance Commission.