FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub testifies before Congress in May. Weintraub said in a letter last week that without four commissioners, the FEC "cannot conduct some of its most consequential business."

FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub testifies before Congress in May. Weintraub said in a letter last week that without four commissioners, the FEC "cannot conduct some of its most consequential business." Carolyn Kaster/AP

Election Oversight Agencies Struggle With Vacancies and Infighting

Commissions responsible for ensuring secure and fair elections are plagued with internal problems.

As Election Day arrives, the agency responsible for enforcing the country’s campaign finance laws has been hamstrung for more than two months due to the lack of a quorum and two of the three commissioners have been publicly attacking each other. 

The Federal Election Commission has been without a quorum since the September resignation of Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen and therefore cannot carry out some of its most basic functions. Chair Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, penned “The State of the Federal Election Commission” on Friday to give an update on some of the challenges the commission has faced over the past two months.

“The hardworking staff of the commission have continued their work for the American people: reviewing and posting disclosure reports on the FEC’s website, responding to questions from the public, educating the regulated community and analyzing incoming allegations of potential campaign-finance violations,” Weintraub wrote. “However, without four commissioners, the FEC cannot conduct some of its most consequential business.” This includes: launching new investigations, issuing advisory opinions, making decisions on pending enforcement actions or enacting new rules. 

Weintraub said that before the commission lost its quorum, it made good progress on its backlog of cases on the enforcement docket, but now the number “has grown and continues to grow every day.” She called on the president and Senate to immediately restore the commission’s quorum as the presidential election is a year away.

In addition to dealing with election-related issues, Weintaub and Republican Commissioner Caroline Hunter have been publicly antagonizing each other.   

Weintraub has been extremely vocal via Twitter and media interviews about foreign election interference and campaign finance in the wake of revelations about the July phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky that prompted a whistleblower complaint. Notably, in late September she tweeted out FEC’s weekly newsletter containing a draft memo on foreign campaign interference, alleging that Hunter attempted to block its publication. 

While Hunter agreed that federal laws prohibit a foreign national from making campaign donations, she said in a statement, “the commission currently lacks a quorum to take official action on most substantive matters, and I object to actions that create the misimpression that the commission can do more than is permissible.” 

Also, on Oct. 22, Hunter wrote an Op-Ed in Politico criticizing Weintraub’s actions. “Weintraub is using her official position to drag the FEC into political debates in which it does not belong, to promote herself and her personal views of what the law should be, and to mislead the public,” Hunter wrote. She called on the president to appoint a new slate of commissioners. 

The other federal agency involved in elections is the Election Assistance Commission, which is in the process of developing new voluntary voting system guidelines that have not been updated since 2005. On Oct. 30, a new version of guidelines said voting machines and ballot scanners must ban connections to the internet or wireless technology, Politico reported. A previous version did not include such a ban and various election security groups criticized the EAC for allegedly not providing its Technical Guidelines Development Committee with all of the over 50,000  public comments advocating for such a ban. 

On a conference call for the guidelines committee on Friday, EAC Vice Chair Ben Hovland said the commission will be releasing a statement soon to clarify any misconceptions about the process for handling public comments. “We plan to put all of that out as soon as possible and let people think of it what they may,” he said.

Additionally, the EAC is looking for a new executive director and general counsel, since the commissioners voted in September to not reappoint Executive Director Brian Newby and General Counsel Cliff Tatum, whose terms expired on Oct. 23. 

The internal issues at the two commissions come as over 90 national security leaders, former members of Congress and former top administration officials, wrote to the Senate last Thursday urging lawmakers to take up bipartisan bills on election security that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and others have blocked. 

“We are alarmed at the lack of meaningful congressional action to secure our elections,” they wrote. “The United States cannot afford to sit by as our adversaries exploit our vulnerabilities. Serious gaps in our current laws allow foreign interference in many ways. However, there are several strong bipartisan bills being proposed to fix these flaws.”