Boxer urges Republicans to revive impotent election commission

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is urging GOP leaders to revive a defunct federal commission designed to ease voters' trips to the polls.

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The decade-old Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has been inoperative for nearly a year, largely because GOP leaders – wary of Washington's role in state-run elections – have refused to name nominees to fill the long-empty commissioner seats.

Boxer this week challenged Republican leaders to reverse course, arguing that a functional EAC might have prevented some of the long lines, registration glitches and other obstacles that many voters faced at the polls on Nov. 6.

"I believe the dysfunction we witnessed may have been reduced had this Commission been fully staffed and operational," Boxer wrote Monday to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“I hope that you will take immediate action to make these recommendations so that we can get the Election Assistance Commission working again, and let the American people know that the government is protecting their fundamental right to vote.”

The EAC was created as part of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which passed in response to the turmoil surrounding the presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore two years earlier. The legislation received broad bipartisan support in the House (357-48) and the Senate (92-2) before Bush signed it into law.

But charges of partisan politicking have plagued the panel and the four commissioner seats – which are supposed to be split between the parties – have been vacant for almost a year. While Democrats have named their pair, Republicans have declined to do so.

In December, House Republicans went a step further, passing legislation eliminating the EAC altogether and shifting its functions to the Federal Election Commission. No Democrats supported the measure; only one Republican – Rep. Walter Jones (N.C.) – voted against it. The Democratically led Senate never considered the bill.

A House GOP leadership aide on Tuesday defended the GOP's decision not to recommend EAC nominees, arguing that the panel has "no role in the administration of elections," which "is handled entirely at the state level (or through the courts)."

Furthermore, the aide said the commission’s duties – including the distribution of funds to states, the certification of voting machines and the operation of Web-based resources for state election officials – "continues in the absence of commissioners."

"There is no impact on the states’ ability to prepare for any election," the aide said.

Although voter turnout this year didn't match that of 2008, voters in a number of districts reported a variety of headaches, including hours-long lines, broken voting machines and a shortage of poll workers available to explain the rules.

Language issues also complicated the process in certain precincts, according to some observers. Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), for instance, said the ballots in her district had instructions in three different languages – English, Spanish and Creole – that made the ballot unnecessarily long and confusing.

"It was absolutely terrible," she said this month. Wilson suggested the state should print three separate ballots to make voting less intimidating.

Boxer, in pushing to revive the EAC, suggested the obstacles are tantamount to voter suppression.

"The right to vote is a cornerstone of our democracy," Boxer wrote to the GOP leaders. "But in making our citizens wait for hours in line, and forcing them to choose between casting their ballot or caring for a sick child, or earning a paycheck to feed their families, the government is infringing on their fundamental right to participate in our democracy."

Boxer is not the only Democrat to urge a greater federal role in national elections this month.

Responding to the many reported obstacles, Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) introduced legislation last week designed to shorten wait times and generally make voting easier. The bill would provide federal grants to states that come up with innovative ways to encourage participation and expedite the process, including efforts to expand early voting, enhance assistance to non-English speakers and shorten lines at the polls.

Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) introduced an almost identical proposal on the same day. Without the backing of Republicans, however, those proposals have no chance of being passed.

Boxer, for her part, thinks resuscitating the EAC would accomplish some of those reforms without the need for new legislation.

"One way we can help guarantee voter access to the polls," she wrote, "is with a fully functioning Election Assistance Commission."