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Now Is the Time to Fully Fund Election Assistance Commission

Elections are receiving more attention than ever. Record turnout during the 2018 midterms leads me to believe that the 2020 presidential cycle will see a huge increase in turnout over recent years. But that public interest in elections hasn’t carried over into funding for the federal agency tasked with improving elections. As the House and Senate work to resolve differences in their respective appropriations bills, Congress must find the will to fund the U.S. Election Assistance Commission at the level required to carry out its vital mission.

Congress created the EAC to serve as a national clearinghouse of information on election administration, test and certify voting equipment, conduct studies on elections in America, and administer grant funding to states. To fulfill these roles, the EAC requires staff, contractors, and an operating budget to bring policymakers, administrators, and experts together to improve election administration across the country.

The EAC received just $7.95 million in FY2019 for general operating support, which represents the lowest amount the Commission has received since its creation in 2004. The budget was 69% larger at the high-water mark for its operating funds in 2010. The threats to elections have grown in number and the complexity has exploded, but the EAC has not kept up.

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EAC Appropriations FY2005-FY2019

Total ($, Millions) Operating ($, Millions)
2005 14 11.2
2006 14.2 11.4
2007 16.236 11.286
2008 16.53 13.08
2009 17.959 12.909
2010 17.959 13.409
2011 16.3 13.05
2012 11.5 8.75
2013 11 8.3
2014 10 8.1
2015 10 8.1
2016 9.6 8.1
2017 9.6 8.2
2018 10.1 8.6
2019 9.2 7.95
 Total ($, Millions)Operating ($, Millions)

A rough calculation of regular EAC expenses shows quite how quickly $7.95 million goes. The EAC must fund its Office of Inspector General ($1 million); the Election Administration and Voting Survey ($900,000); and the salaries and benefits of the six statutory employees, including four commissioners, executive director, and general counsel ($1.2 million). The remaining $5 million has to cover rent for office space, the disbursement and monitoring of federal election security grants, the voting system testing and certification program, the meetings of the EAC Board of Advisors, EAC Standards Board, and Technical Guidelines Development Committee as well as all other staff salaries. It’s not enough to do the job.

The Senate and House of Representatives are far apart on the appropriate level of funding for the EAC. The House-passed appropriations bill would provide the agency about $12.5 million in operating funds for 2020. The companion appropriations bill in the Senate would only provide about $8.1 million. Congress must get to the higher end of that range.

I concede that EAC has done itself no favors. The commission has been embroiled in litigation on different fronts and has been unable to update voting system guidelines in a substantial way since 2007. And it will likely enter 2020 without an executive director or general counsel, two positions that become vacant this week after the incumbents’ four-year terms expire.  The EAC’s clearinghouse function, which could add so much value to the field, has not yet performed as expected.

Yet, Congress has exacerbated the problems. Long vacancies on the commission have left the agency without a quorum for more than a quarter of its existence, including a nearly 10-year vacancy in one of the commissioner roles, and less than a third of the time have all four commissioner seats been filled. The level of funding over the past seven years makes it difficult to recruit and retain staff, who know they will be asked to serve in many different capacities.

A functioning and funded EAC would be a real value add for election officials:

  • The turnover in local election administration is high. The EAC’s clearinghouse would supplement the efforts states make to train new election administrators quickly at a cost saving to the states.
  • The EAC has a unique ability to view the entire election landscape across the country. The commissioners and staff should be sharing lessons learned from policy development and implementation in one state with policymakers and administrators in all the other states to improve the voting experience. The commission can also be a better resource for officials in the administration and Congress on the development of federal election policy.
  • Election security is currently key priority of the Department of Homeland Security, which designated elections as critical infrastructure in 2017. Unlike other critical infrastructure designations, the elections designation was made at the secretary level and not in law. While DHS may be making efforts in 2019 and 2020 to connect federal resources to state and local administrators, future DHS secretaries with other priorities may do the same. The EAC is the only federal agency whose mission is to support election administration across the country.
  • EAC’s data collection and analysis program helps administrators and policymakers understand the electorate in context. Additional focus on research that helps everyone understand U.S. election administration would lead to better policy development.
  • Voting systems must be tested against rigorous standards. The manufacturers are ready to build state-of-the art voting systems once they have a clear understanding of federal standards coming from the EAC.

The EAC needs one more chance to prove its value to the field. It has a full complement of commissioners and national attention. Congress must provide the appropriate level of funding that allows the commission to perform its duties well.

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