EAC faces tough questions on Capitol Hill
Budget, performance get scrutiny in House Elections Subcommittee
The continuing debate about the future of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) recently found its way to a Congressional hearing room. Specifically, the U.S. Committee on House Administration’s Subcommittee on Elections held a hearing during which members not only questioned the specifics of the agency’s budget but openly wondered whether the agency has outlived its usefulness.
“As many of you know, I have serious doubts about the Commission’s purpose,” said subcommittee chair Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), citing the dwindling pool of federal dollars authorized for distribution by the EAC to the states under the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA).
Harper has introduced H.R.672, a bill that would terminate the EAC and transfer some of its responsibilities to other agencies.
On the topic of the EAC’s FY 2012 Budget Request of $13,715,665, Harper expressed considerable skepticism about that figure noting that 51.7 percent of the total budget – including approximately $5.4 million in overhead – represented management expenses compared to direct election programs totaling around $3.5 million.
He was not alone in his assessment.
After EAC Commissioner Donetta Davidson defended the 2012 budget proposal, Commissioner Gineen Bresso, who had experience overseeing the EAC during her tenure as elections counsel for the Committee on House Administration Republicans, agreed with Harper.
“I do not support the budget,” Bresso testified, saying she thought it “spends too much money on the bureaucratic infrastructure and not enough on agency activities and programs that assist state and local election officials and benefit voters.”
EAC executive director Tom Wilkey disagreed, arguing that the agency represents a “very low kept cost to the federal government,” and pointed to its rigorous voting system certification program which he said allowed states and localities to save millions of dollars at testing time.
Additionally, Wilkey argued that the EAC collects valuable information about elections. In particular, he cited the impending release of “the latest, most comprehensive data about the ballot request and return rate for overseas and military voters,” and would inform Congress about the impact of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act of 2009.
Wilkey did agree that the EAC, like many other federal agencies, will have to learn to do more with less and become leaner and more efficient.
Budgetary issues are not the only challenges facing the agency and many of them got attention at the hearing. Members and witnesses all noted that two of the four EAC seats remain vacant, leaving a lack of quorum for even basic decisions. Harper noted that the National Association of Secretaries of State recently renewed its resolutions calling for the elimination of the EAC. Harper also submitted an October 2010 letter and a 2009 report from the Social Security Administration (SSA) alleging that the EAC has failed to submit a HAVA-mandated report (originally due in 2005) on the feasibility of using Social Security numbers to establish voter registration.
Following the hearing, Harper had not changed his view about the EAC’s future.
“What my colleagues and I heard again today was further confirmation that we need to eliminate the EAC, which has clearly served its purpose and is no longer essential to the administration of our elections,” he said in a press release reiterating his support for H.R. 672.
(Andreas Westgaard is a Pew Leadership Fellow.)