Improve Vote Counting? No Way, Says House GOP

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

John Walker, 88, places his completed ballot into a machine after voting in the general election, Tuesday, November 8, 2016, in Miami Shores, Florida.

Just in case President Donald Trump’s specious voter fraud claims haven’t done enough to diminish public confidence in American elections, House Republicans have set out to shutter the one federal agency that works to keep the nation’s polling places running smoothly.

The mandate of that agency, the Election Assistance Commission, is to modernize and secure the nation’s voting machines, and to serve as an information clearinghouse for states on such best practices as how to avoid long lines at the polls, and make sure all votes are tallied. It’s the sort of thing that one might expect Trump, with his unsubstantiated claims that fraudulent ballots cost him the popular vote, might consider worth investing in.

But this week the Republicans on the House Administration Committee voted to kill the EAC, approving along party lines a bill authored by House Republican Gregg Harper, of Mississippi. Harper declared that, “it is time for the EAC to be officially ended,” adding: “We don’t need fluff.” Harper’s panel concurrently voted to eliminate the presidential public financing system. Reform advocates on and off Capitol Hill decried both moves, calling them antidemocratic.

The two bills will “further degrade public confidence in our democracy, in effect making it harder to vote and easier for big money donors to influence our politics,” stated a letter authored by Democrats on a House Democracy Reform Task Force headed by Maryland’s John Sarbanes.

Neither bill makes particularly good sense. The presidential public financing system, while largely dysfunctional and ignored by major party candidates, could be restored with a few common-sense tweaks. But of the two, the GOP’s move to nix the EAC is the more blatantly silly. In the wake of an election that has prompted a congressional investigation into Russian hacking, one might expect Republicans to double the agency’s relatively paltry $10 million budget. Instead, they are moving to shut it down.

“Congress is investigating potential Russian interference with the election,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The vice president is supposedly going to be investigating potential voter fraud, and whether there are problems with our registration system. If those are actual concerns, we should not be throwing out the one federal agency that is supposed to help us with those issues nationally.”

It’s true that the EAC has weathered some ups and downs. The agency was established with the 2002 Help America Vote Act, enacted after the contested 2000 presidential election exposed the sorry state of the nation’s dilapidated voting machines. Part of the EAC’s mandate was to dole out the federal funding for states to buy new voting equipment.

But the bipartisan agency, set up to be run by two Democratic and two Republican commissioners, struggled amid budget shortfalls and vacancies, at one point limping along without a single commissioner. Now re-staffed with three of its four commissioners, the EAC is playing a newly urgent role, its defenders say, now that the voting machines purchased with HAVA money 15 years ago are reaching the end of their natural lifespans.

These older voting machines are plagued by serious security and reliability flaws, according to a Brennan Center report dubbed “America’s Voting Machines at Risk.” The report warns of a pending voting machine crisis, concluding that most election districts are using machines that are ten or more years old. States cannot even find replacement parts for equipment that is no longer being manufactured, and is subject to crashes and failures. The resulting problems include “flipped votes, freezes, shut downs, long lines, and, in the worst-case scenarios, lost votes and erroneous tallies,” according to the report.

Erroneous tallies appear to be a leading concern of Trump’s, who has said he will put Vice President Pence in charge of a commission to investigate his unsubstantiated claim that voter fraud cost him the popular vote, which Hillary Clinton won by a margin of close to 3 million. Given the total lack of evidence that voter fraud has ever occurred on anything but the most miniscule scale in the U.S., voting rights advocates warn that Trump’s real objective may be to lay the groundwork for additional voting restrictions, such as the legally-contested voter ID laws enacted by several GOP-controlled state legislatures.

The EAC, in the meantime, has been scrambling to produce new voting systems guidelines, and help states certify and purchase a new generation of machines to replace the post-HAVA equipment that is now falling apart. It’s unclear whether or when the House will take up Harper’s bill, or whether the Senate will ever follow suit. But of all the GOP’s willy-nilly assaults on government, the move to shutter the EAC stands out as among the most brainless.

The EAC is “indispensable” right now, says Doug Chapin, director of the Election Academy at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. As Chapin puts it: “Now does not seem like a good time, especially with tensions and concerns high about our election system, to get rid of the one place in Washington that seems to be plugged in to state and local election officials across the country.”

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