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What the Election Assistance Commission needs in its next leaders

What the Election Assistance Commission needs in its next leaders
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The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has played an important role in federal election security efforts since the U.S. Intelligence Community reported that foreign entities tried to interfere in the 2016 election. Unfortunately, this crucial election security agency is without either a permanent executive director or general counsel — and the first 2020 primary elections are only a few months away.

The absence of leadership at the EAC could undermine some of the good work the agency has done since the 2016 election. Following the designation of election systems as critical infrastructure in 2017, the EAC assisted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in establishing the new Election Infrastructure Subsector, which has facilitated better sharing of threat information. In 2018, the EAC promptly administered $380 million, which Congress appropriated, to states for the purpose of enhancing election technology and improving election security. And in its own work, the EAC provides information technology management trainings for election officials and has produced election security and critical infrastructure resources for voters.

Last month, EAC commissioners voted 2-2 not to reappoint the previous executive director and general counsel. The four EAC commissioners have sole discretion over who will become the next executive director and general counsel, and whomever they choose could go a long way towards helping the EAC assist states and localities in the run up to the 2020 elections. With that mind, below are several criteria that the commissioners should look for from their next executive director and general counsel.

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First, the executive director and general counsel should accept without reservation the intelligence community’s findings on foreign interference in the 2016 elections. If either position is filled by a person who disputes these findings, the EAC will instantly have a credibility problem and be more likely to encounter resistance from its partners, whether it’s certain state and local election officials, federal agencies, or other election stakeholders.

Second, the executive director and general counsel should have a strong understanding of election security and the multidimensional threat of foreign interference in 2020. DHS is currently providing most of the federal government’s technical support to state and local election officials, but the EAC has deeper, long-term relationships with many of these officials that pre-date 2016. An executive director and general counsel who are knowledgeable in election security matters could help leverage these longstanding relationships in coordination with DHS efforts to help these officials improve their security posture before 2020.

Third, the executive director and general counsel should have significant experience administering elections or running large organizations in a widely respected manner. Since the first four EAC commissioners took office in Dec. 13, 2003, the EAC has experienced recurrent upheaval on the commission, such as losing a policymaking quorum on multiple occasions, withstanding attempts to terminate the agency and being subject to significant budget cuts. In the current political climate, the EAC has little room for error, and it can ill-afford to have unforced errors from its next executive director and general counsel.

Fourth, the executive director and general counsel should be supportive of and proactive in promoting election security to help states and localities build resilience to foreign interference. Both hires need security clearances that enable them to be optimal resources for their federal partners, such as DHS, their EAC colleagues and state and local election officials.

Under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, the executive director is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the agency and has the authority to hire other professional staff. It is critical that the next executive director ensure that the EAC has election security experts on staff who have broad authority to: 1) assist state and local election officials in securing their election systems, and 2) discuss election security issues with other stakeholders who could help in this effort, whether it’s election vendors, tech companies, security researchers or other government agencies, to name just a few.

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Finally, the executive director and general counsel should have a vision for the EAC’s role that provides a pathway for more funding and increased support — whether that vision is to help amplify ideas like Illinois’s Cyber Navigator program, a statewide effort to help election authorities defend against cyber breaches and detect and recover from cyber-attacks, or to discuss ways to update the voluntary voting system guidelines to reflect today’s potential threats.

As EAC Vice-Chair Ben Hovland noted in testimony to the House Judiciary Committee during its Oct. 22 election security hearing, “The threat of foreign adversaries remains real and, ultimately, our state and local election officials do not have the resources to thwart a truly determined and sophisticated nation-state actor.” Whomever the EAC hires as its next executive director and general counsel won’t solve this problem, but new leadership will certainly help determine what role the agency will play in addressing it.

David Levine is the Elections Integrity Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy. He previously served in a range of positions administering and observing elections, and advocating for election reform. Most recently, as the Ada County, Idaho, Elections Director, he managed the administration of all federal, state county and local district elections in Boise and its environs. He worked as the Election Management Advisor for the Washington, D.C. Board of Elections on highly complex matters related to elections operations, data management, voter registration and outreach, and advised others concerning legislation, statutes and regulations impacting election programs. He also served as the Deputy Director of Elections for the City of Richmond, Va., and has observed elections overseas in a number of countries for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Follow him on Twitter @davidalanlevine.