In defense of the US Election Assistance Commission

In defense of the US Election Assistance Commission
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For its stature as a small agency, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has made a lot of headlines over the years and, again, lately. Unfortunately, recent reports have been more politically-driven and sensational than fact-filled and productive. It’s time to set the record straight, especially since my own tenure here has been a primary focus for these attacks.

Just six years ago, the EAC was on the brink of shuttering its doors for good. It had lost its quorum of Commissioners. Congressional leaders were espousing the view that the agency had outlived its mandate. Its depleted staff was moved to smaller office space and told by leadership that they should look for jobs.

However, in 2014, a quorum of Commissioners was restored and a new promise of relevance was cultivated. The Commissioners began reconnecting with state and local election leaders and charting a course to fulfill the vision set forth in the Help American Vote Act (HAVA).

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When I interviewed in July 2015 to serve as the EAC’s new Executive Director, I met Christy McCormick for the first time and was pleased to reconnect with Matthew Masterson and Thomas Hicks, both of whom I knew well from my time as an election official. When I received their unanimous vote for my appointment, I vowed to restore faith in the agency, support them as they sought to make their mark on the agency, and reestablish the EAC’s relevance.

During the period the EAC was without Commissioners, I was a local election official in Kansas, a post I held for 11 years. Like some in Congress, I, too, had questioned the EAC’s ongoing value. I felt the EAC no longer spoke to election officials, change was needed, and there was a great need to “make it real.” I stated in my interview that I was the right person at the right time for the EAC.

Today, despite what any headline may claim, the EAC has become relevant and trusted. I take great pride in being part of such a tremendous turnaround. Instead of bills on the Hill to eliminate the Commission, the House of Representatives is now pushing for the EAC to receive a nearly 50 percent budget increase next year. Members of Congress repeatedly note the EAC’s new-found sense of purpose and vital mission. The Commission has a full complement of Commissioners for the first time in nearly a decade, and the EAC continues to play a leading role in some of the most pressing issues facing election officials, including election security, aging election technology, and accessibility.

Election officials continue to benefit from programs established under my watch. For example, ahead of the 2016 Presidential Election, the EAC launched its #BeReady16 Initiative that helped election administrators prepare for anticipated tasks that they would face within the next 45 days, such as postal issues, military and overseas voting challenges, and election worker training. The EAC created a best practice award program that highlights innovative election administration work across the nation so that election offices can learn from one another and apply new approaches that can improve services for voters. The Commission has also engaged an expanded community of stakeholders to elevate issues at the heart of HAVA, including accessibility and the right of every American to vote privately and independently.

Following the 2016 Presidential Election, I worked to ensure election officials had a prominent seat at the table as new lines of communication and information sharing were developed to address election security threats. Under my direction, the EAC drove the development of an election security working group that eventually became the subsector’s Government Coordinating Council (GCC). The GCC was set up within 10 months of the declaration of Elections as Critical Infrastructure, the fastest sector set-up ever, according to DHS. In addition to the EAC’s work with the Department of Homeland Security to establish the GCC, the Commission played an integral role in establishing the Sector Coordinating Council (SCC) comprised of private election equipment manufacturers and vendors. These two councils are at the heart of the successful federally-led effort to provide information and resources to help state and local election leaders be better prepared and more resilient.

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Further, the agency has taken a multifaceted approach to helping election officials strengthen election security. The EAC tests and certifies voting systems, provides hands-on security and post-election audit trainings, produces security-focused resources, and disseminates security best practices information and check-lists to election officials. It also hosts widely attended forums that feature security experts as speakers, such as last month’s 2019 Election Data Summit. While the EAC’s lack of dedicated election security staff and its restrictive budget – $7.95 million in FY2019 after our required $1.5 million transfer to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) – means we have to make choices about the activities we undertake, the Commission has invested its resources wisely ahead of 2020 and will continue to do so moving forward.

When the EAC lost a quorum following the departure of Commissioner Masterson, our work and successes didn’t stop. In fact, when Congress allocated $380 in newly appropriated HAVA Funds, the Commission worked to award all funds to states within 60 days of the legislation being passed. Such speed was unprecedented by federal agency standards, and it’s a feat that has gained high praise from a broad spectrum of stakeholders. This money is being used to secure our elections, purchase new election equipment, update voter registration systems, and shore-up election administration efforts from coast to coast.

The EAC is leading in the election community. Our work has both renewed relevance and true impact. Don’t take my word for it. A recent letter to the House of Representatives Committee on House Administration signed by 28 voting rights, disability rights, racial justice, veterans, labor, and faith organizations noted that “an empowered and fully resourced EAC is critical to advancing the goals of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), one of our nation’s major federal voting laws, and to supporting state and local election administrators in the performance of their responsibilities.”

I don’t claim sole credit for this transformation, but I am proud that these successes happened under my watch as Executive Director and that, by any measure, the EAC is a better agency today than it was four years ago.

Change isn’t easy. We’ve rebuilt the staff into a team of high-achievers who selflessly go the extra mile to fulfill the EAC’s mission, often working long hours and beyond the scope of their regularly assigned duties. It pains me to have their work and accomplishments so suddenly and blatantly downplayed, overlooked, and undermined by outside political forces, particularly the same stakeholders who applauded the work of the EAC as our positive change unfolded.

No amount of political posturing or pontificating can erase the EAC’s accomplishments. I am committed to serving election officials and voter and ensuring the EAC’s mission is met. The EAC is relevant again and deserves to avoid political forces that disrupted the agency’s effectiveness years ago. We’ve worked too hard to get here. Not only have we not outlived our mission, we’re just getting started.

Brian D. Newby is Executive Director of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.