electionlineWeekly Q&A with New EAC Commissioners

L to R: Commissioner Masterson, Chair McCormick, Vice-Chair Hicks

[Image courtesy of Matt Masterson]

My friend and colleague Mindy Moretti had a great piece in yesterday’s electionlineWeekly featuring a Q&A with the three new members of the Election Assistance Commission. As they hit the ground running, it’s an illuminating look at what’s on their mind for immediate and foreseeable future of both the EAC and elections in the United States.

Late in 2014, the U.S. Congress finally — and unanimously — approved the appointment of three new commissioners to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

The commission had been without a quorum for four years with new appointments getting hung up on things the way most things on Capitol Hill get hung up — partisanship.

And even with a quorum finally in place, some on Capitol Hill aren’t all that happy.

Mississippi Rep. Gregg Harper has introduced legislation to eliminate the EAC. H.R. 195 calls for the termination of the commission and assigns remaining duties to the Office of Personnel Management and the Federal Elections Commission. The legislation has been referred to the House Administration Committee.

Despite the legislative cloud, the new members of the commission quickly got to work following their January swearing in and have held several public meetings and roundtables, began a national search for a new executive director and have visited and spoken with elections officials nationwide.

Although it’s a busy time for the new commission, each commissioner took a bit of time out their schedules to respond to some questions form electionlineWeekly about their thoughts on the state of elections in the United States.

Christy McCormick, chairwoman
Prior to serving on the EAC McCormick was a senior trial attorney for the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. During her tenure at DOJ she investigated numerous elections-related cases and was detailed to Iraq for a year to help with their elections.

Before joining DOJ she clerked for the Court of Appeals of Virginia and was an assistant attorney general and assistant to the solicitor general in the Virginia Attorney General’s office. She received her BA from the University of Buffalo and JD from George Mason University.

Her term ends December 12.

Why did you want to serve on the EAC–especially since some on the Hill think it isn’t necessary anymore?
I was very honored that Senator McConnell placed his trust in me when he sent my name to the president to be nominated as a commissioner on the EAC. I had heard rumors that some Members of Congress wanted to shut down the Commission, but had not followed the controversy closely.

As an attorney at the Department of Justice (DOJ), I worked on matters brought against some of the states for the purpose of improving their responses to the EAC’s Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS), which resulted in agreements by those States to provide the data, and ultimately also prodded other states to respond to the survey with more accurate and more reliable election data.

At the DOJ, we often utilized the EAC’s data in our investigations regarding violations of the Federal voting statutes, so we wanted that data collection to continue and to be as valid as possible.

I believe that the work of the EAC is essential to advancing democracy and better elections in the U.S., so when I was asked to serve as a commissioner, I readily accepted the challenge. I was and am excited that I can contribute to continuing the important work of the Commission and hopefully to improve its value to election officials, voters, and those with an interest in promoting excellence in our elections.  

What’s been the most interesting/surprising thing that you have encountered since being sworn-in?
The most surprising thing has been the energy that our confirmation and appointment to the Commission have brought to the election community. With the EAC in limbo since 2010, there were questions about who could provide the Commission’s services if it was shut down, and a vacuum was created over concerns about who would provide the voluntary voting systems standards, who could test and certify voting systems, who would be able to collect data, research critical issues and who could sponsor the clearinghouse function and disseminate guidelines and best practices to the local election administrators.

With the Commission fully back in business, state and local officials and administrators are bolstered by the federal government’s commitment to providing needed services to them, and they are extremely supportive of the Commission and the valuable assistance it provides. I am very encouraged by the positive attitudes we have encountered throughout the election community and by the willingness of all the stakeholders to improve and advance our elections.  

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing elections officials in the U.S. today?
The biggest challenge is making legislators and voters understand what it takes to carry out elections. I believe that most people think that one or two days a year, voting machines are pulled out of storage and set up in a room somewhere, people vote, the results are announced, and the machines are wheeled back into storage until the next election. In fact, elections require a huge effort on a daily basis, from registering voters, processing registrations and keeping lists up to date, qualifying candidates, sorting through and validating petitions, updating procedures, designing, proofing and printing sometimes hundreds of different ballots, often translating materials in other languages, providing and processing absentee ballots, maintaining websites and updating information for candidates and voters, locating appropriate polling sites (with enough electrical outlets to run the equipment), purchasing, maintaining, servicing, testing, troubleshooting and warehousing the vast amount of equipment required (laptops, scanners, tabulators, voting machines, tablets, electronic poll books and more), updating software, testing the equipment for logistics and accuracy, trucking equipment to and from polling places and securely storing it, tracking and mailing ballots to overseas voters, maintaining accurate records, adjudicating provisional and other ballots, compiling and certifying results, conducting audits and recounts, maintaining a call center, recruiting and training poll workers, IT professionals, data technicians, and numerous other elections employees and volunteers – the work truly is endless. 

Unfortunately, the funding to accomplish it is not. Legislators – and voters – rarely even think about the resources necessary to running elections, unless something goes wrong, which in the election world is relatively rare. There is zero tolerance for error in elections, so election officials are constantly challenged with maintaining perfection on tighter than tight and shrinking budgets. Legislators and voters should know that election officials are constantly looking for ways to improve their work, meet immoveable deadlines, and provide the safest, most secure and reliable voting experience possible. It is a huge task and our election officials and administrators are terribly underappreciated.

What do you hope to accomplish during your time on the EAC?
The EAC has to become a more customer-focused service agency, responsive to the wants and needs of those who run the elections.  It must not and should not be seen as another Federal agency issuing mandates on the States, but as a place that election administrators can get the information and data they need to better do their jobs.  The EAC’s main functions, such as testing and certification of systems, or provision of practical help and guidance, must be streamlined, and our response time quicker and at the speed of elections.

We need to get our arms around the huge amount of data we have and continue to collect, and that our stakeholders are looking for, to link to data that other partner agencies and organizations have, and provide it all in a way that is relevant and easily searchable.  We need to improve our work on making voting more accessible, usable, independent and private for those with disabilities, which is a growing segment of our voting public. The EAC needs to take the lead on coordinating the resources available to our many stakeholders, including officials, administrators, academics, and voters, and become the one-stop shop for everything elections.

Where do you see U.S. elections in 10 years?
In 2025, I expect we will have seen great advancements in the technology used in elections.  I don’t know if we will yet have the security in place necessary for voting on the Internet or on our phones, but I think we will have made strides in that direction.  Our equipment will be more reliable and more accessible. We will likely see more options in the convenience and method of casting ballots in ways that are more in sync with the way we live our daily lives.

I hope we will see better turnout, the ability of all eligible voters to participate, increased trust and confidence of the electorate in our voting systems and outcomes, and a greater appreciation for our privilege to vote. I know that we will continue to have election officials and administrators that will continuously strive to serve the public and their voters in the best possible ways, and my hope is that the EAC will still be providing excellent assistance to those who carry out our elections and who are providing the foundation to our participation in our governance and our Republic.   

Thomas Hicks, vice chair
Hicks served as senior elections counsel and minority elections counsel on the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on House Administration for 11 years before joining the EAC.

Before that he was a senior lobbyist and policy analyst for Common Cause and served in the Clinton Administration as a special assistant and legislative assistant in the Office of Congressional Relations for the Office of Personnel Management. Hicks has is BA from Clark University and a JD from the Catholic University of America.

His term ends December 12, 2017.

Why did you want to serve on the EAC–especially since some on the Hill think it isn’t necessary anymore?
I have always enjoyed working with state and local election officials, civil rights organizations and all other stakeholders to improve the voting process. So when asked to serve, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity. And I am grateful to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for submitting my name to the President to serve on the commission as well as members of the Committee on House Administration for supporting my nomination, including current ranking member Bob Brady and past ranking members Steny Hoyer and John Larson.

My interest in elections started as a child when my mother brought my brother and me into the voting booth and pulled the lever. She gently reminded us that when she was growing up in southern Georgia, it was a lot harder for minorities to vote than on that day when she voted for President Jimmy Carter. I was able to share this story with President Carter a few years ago. The ability to help facilitate access to our voting system – the cornerstone of our participatory system of government – for all eligible Americans continues to be a strong motivating factor in my career. Elections are the backbone of freedom in America. They empower our citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest.

I had the honor to work on the legislation that eventually became the Help America Vote Act.  I also had the opportunity to work for the House of Representatives giving advice to members during the initial implementation of HAVA.  Working on the hill, I came to realize that there are many voices and opinions.  Some have called for the elimination of the agency.  Others have stated that it needs to be reformed. I and my fellow commissioners have accomplished a great deal at the EAC in just the first few months of being sworn in and we have much more work to do before the 2016 election. 

I believe in the Election Assistance Commission. I believe in the primary mission of the agency – ensuring all eligible Americans have the information needed to register to vote, cast a ballot and have that balloted counted. Whether those Americans are voting in New Hampshire, California, Georgia or on battlefields overseas, they should have the same confidence that their ballots are being counted.

What’s been the most interesting/surprising thing that you have encountered since being sworn-in?
As I’ve traveled across America, I have listened and heard the same response from state and local election officials, advocates, and other stakeholders.  They are glad we are here they and expect us to act quickly to support and assist election officials to meet the challenges heading into the 2016 elections

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing elections officials in the U.S. today?
Election officials are constantly being asked to make more and more sacrifices while implementing new rules to ensure that the election process moves smoothly. Basically doing more with less with the constant fear of being the poster child for errors that might occur with elections. This is a challenge that must be accomplished with smaller budgets and without the option of failure. Elections don’t allow for do overs. Above all else, we must always uphold the public’s trust and ensure confidence in the process.

What do you hope to accomplish during your time on the EAC?
I have communicated with Americans in every state about their voting experiences. I have worked with state and local election officials across America to address critical election concerns, I have had unique opportunities to work and speak with Americans overseas concerning the obstacles they face in registering to vote and casting their ballots. I believe that, regardless of partisan ideology or political affiliation, we all want the same thing–fair, accurate elections, where we are confident of the outcome and all eligible Americans (domestic and overseas) are able to participate in our process, the best in the world. I hope to use this knowledge and experience in my role as an EAC Commissioner to continue working to achieve this goal.

Where do you see U.S. elections in 10 years?
Americans are using new technology to register to vote online, our men and women serving overseas are using technology for ballot delivery and having their delivered ballots tracked (not the same as having their votes tracked) so they know that they were received by the election jurisdiction.

To know the future is to look at the past. 15 years ago punch cards were the perceived problem in elections. But the real issue was voting machines.  The machines were replaced. We at the EAC are looking at ways to not just replace hardware but also components and software and make it easier for Americans to cast their ballots, while ensuring that accuracy is maintained.  There are many ways to get from Massachusetts to California, car, train, airplane, etc. The point is there are many different ways to make the journey but at the end of the day you know where you want to go.

Matthew V. Masterson, commissioner
Masterson is another familiar face around the EAC offices although most recently he served several roles the office of Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted including interim chief of staff, deputy chief of staff and chief information officer as well as deputy director of elections.

Before that Masterson worked for the EAC from 2006 to 2011 in a variety of roles including deputy director for the EAC’s Voting System Testing and Certification Program. Masterson has a BS and BA from Miami University in Ohio and a JD from The University Dayton.

His term ends December 12, 2017.

Why did you want to serve on the EAC–especially since some on the Hill think it isn’t necessary anymore?
This simple answer is because I was honored and humbled by Speaker Boehner asking me to serve and wanted to fulfill that request.  However, there is even more to it than that for me.  I worked at the EAC for more than five years as a staffer.  In my time there, I loved the work I did and the opportunities I got to work with and learn from some of the best election officials across the country.  When Secretary Husted gave me the opportunity to return home to Ohio to help run a presidential election in one of the most important states in the nation, it was too good to be true (and something I will always be grateful to him for offering to me) .  When I got to Ohio and began my work, two things became clear to me: 1) I would have been so much better at my job at the EAC had I worked in Ohio first; and 2) elections are what I truly love to do.  So when I was contacted by the speaker’s office about serving on the EAC, I felt like I had unfinished work to complete and I was finally prepared to do it.

What’s been the most interesting/surprising thing that you have encountered since being sworn-in?
I have been surprised and thrilled by the level of support we have received from election officials, and with that support comes clear expectations of what needs to be done. I hear two things consistently at every conference I attend: 1) we are thrilled the EAC has commissioners; and 2) we need your help and we need it quickly.  It is clear we don’t have any time to waste, particularly with providing support to local election officials with their aging voting equipment and improving our clearinghouse.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing elections officials in the U.S. today?
It’s the obvious answer but it’s true… resources.  Not just money, but also IT resources, having enough poll workers, enough polling places, etc.  Election officials are doing much more with significantly less than they were even six to 10 years ago.  That’s what makes the EAC’s resources and information so critical; they are free and readily available.  Something as simple as posting RFPs that jurisdictions have used to purchase new voting technology can be invaluable to a local election official who is beginning the purchasing process (free plug: which the EAC offers http://www.eac.gov/testing_and_certification/voting_system_rfp_repository.aspx ) Now it’s incumbent on us to get the word out to those election officials who are looking for the information.

What do you hope to accomplish during your time on the EAC?
I hope to work with my fellow commissioners to fulfill the potential that the EAC has to serve election officials and, through them, the voters of America.  Specifically this means getting the next set of voting system requirements done quickly so the innovative technology that voters and election officials crave can get to the market.  This means taking the massive amount of data that the EAC has in the election day survey and making it useful and tangible for election officials to use to find efficiencies and cost savings across their operation.  This means making the EAC website a one-stop shop for all things election administration so election officials and voters can easily find the information they need.

Where do you see U.S. elections in 10 years?
In some ways, I see U.S. elections in a similar place as now.  States and locals are doing amazing things to serve their voters and that will not change.  The two areas of greatest change will come with increased use of technology and greater reliance on data to drive decision-making for election officials.  Not surprisingly, these two will work hand in hand.  Whether it’s online voter registration, cleaner registration rolls, greater access for voters with disabilities, the use of vote centers or better services for military and overseas voters, these decisions will be driven by data and served by greater access to technology.  Voters expect voting to resemble their everyday lives and election officials will continue to look to find ways to make that happen.  It’s incumbent on the EAC to listen and learn from those election officials and provide the services and information they need to accomplish this mission.

It’s clear from these responses that the EAC knows its plate is full, but the three Commissioners have already demonstrated an appetite for work and a willingness to take big bites. Thanks to them for taking the time to respond and for Mindy for giving them space and an opportunity to do so!

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