Baby, not bathwater – Don’t toss the EAC’s Election Day Survey
By Doug Chapin
The future of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is very much in doubt.
After suffering budget cuts in a recent continuing resolution, the EAC now faces skepticism about its very existence (as my colleague Andreas Westgaard noted last week) from the new U.S. House Elections Subcommittee Chairman, Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.)
Harper has already introduced H.R.672, a bill which would terminate the EAC 60 days after enactment and transfer some of its functions to other agencies. Under the Harper bill, voting machine testing and certification would move from the EAC to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Similarly, the EAC’s mandated reports under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) and the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) would revert to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), as would responsibility for pilot studies of voting technology for military and overseas voters.
While its prospects for enactment are uncertain given the current divided partisan control on Capitol Hill, the Harper bill presents a welcome opportunity for Congress and the larger election community to reassess the costs and benefits of the election administration infrastructure that was enacted as part of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA).
In making that assessment, there will be lots of attention on EAC programs that aren’t working well – or at all – and can thus be transferred or jettisoned entirely. Yet it will also be crucial to identify those programs which are working and thus should be retained and even strengthened.
In other words, when it comes to the EAC we need to decide what is bathwater – and what is baby.
One “baby” that must not be overlooked is the Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS), or “Election Day Survey” – a biennial collection of state and local election administration data and information, mandated by section 241 of HAVA and conducted by the EAC since 2004.
Like many of the EAC’s programs - indeed, like any baby - the Election Day Survey has had its growing pains. First of all, while the EAC is required to conduct the entire Survey, state and local election offices are only required to respond to the NVRA/UOCAVA sections. Second, the decentralized nature of American election administration has created considerable variation in the quality of the data submitted. Third, state and local officials have complained that the EAC has released survey questions too late for them to have the proper data collection procedures in place. Finally, the process of collecting and cleaning the data can delay public release of the results enough to hinder their use by anyone as a policymaking or evaluation tool.
Yet over time, as the EAC and election officials alike have become more familiar with the Survey, its timeliness, response rates and data quality have improved dramatically. This creates new and exciting opportunities to use the data to evaluate the performance of American elections. Indeed, the primary beneficiary of this explosion of quality data is not the federal government (given the EAC’s nearly non-existent regulatory authority) but rather the larger community of state and local election officials who – now more than ever – are able to use the data to benchmark and assess themselves against their peers across the nation.
Full disclosure: my colleagues and I at Pew are knee-deep in this process as we work to create a way to use election administration data – much of it drawn directly from the Survey – that would allow states and localities to gauge the accuracy, security, convenience (and even cost) of their election systems in an effort to serve citizens not just as voters but also as taxpayers.
Quite simply, the Election Day Survey is the only source of regular (and increasingly reliable) information about election administration nationwide. Whatever the decision about the EAC’s future, it would be a huge step backward for the election community to lose the Survey just as it is finally hitting its stride.
The Great Recession and its accompanying “new normal” have triggered many difficult but necessary conversations about the size, scope and cost of government. Current discussions about the EAC demonstrate that no agency is exempt from the need to justify the investment of scarce taxpayer funds. Yet in all of these debates we need to be sure that we are not blindly eliminating programs whose value exceeds their cost.
There may indeed be, as Chairman Harper suspects, lots of bathwater at the EAC. But the Election Day Survey is a valuable baby (with a bright future) that should not be thrown out.