The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is once again in the limelight. The EAC has faced extensive criticism since its creation in 2002: It has been accused of political bias in its reporting, hiring discrimination, technical inadequacy, inefficiency, and irrelevance. Most recently, the EAC announced the departure of its third executive director in as many years, Steven Frid. This continued pattern of high turnover has drawn the ire of observers who once again question the agency’s leadership and stability going into a contentious election season.
The EAC’s shortcomings aren’t entirely the fault of agency leadership or employees. Rather, a combination of political interference, structural limitations, and insufficient funding has hampered the EAC’s ability to function as effectively as it could. Furthermore, the EAC has made real progress in reforming its operations and programs to better serve the election community since the 2020 election.
While challenges remain, the narrative that the EAC is a wholly ineffective organization fails to account for recent progress that has occurred despite significant, externally imposed limitations. With the right reforms in place, the EAC could continue building on this progress to fully maximize its potential as the only federal agency entirely devoted to election administration.
How the EAC got here
The EAC was established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to serve as a federal nexus for questions of election administration and voting system technology. Election procedures and standards vary significantly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction in the United States; as the Congressionally designated clearinghouse for election administration, the EAC serves a critical role in promoting election security and elevating best practices for the nation’s roughly 10,000 election jurisdictions.
Below, we lay out three limitations that have long held the EAC back from optimal performance. While these do not capture every potential cause, they are intended to contextualize the EAC’s challenges within the broader federal ecosystem and chart a course toward meaningful reform.
(1) Political Interference
The EAC is composed of four commissioners, two from each of the major political parties. Commissioners are nominated by the president upon the recommendation of the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate, and are then confirmed by the Senate. The EAC commissioners appoint the executive director and general counsel to oversee its day-to-day operations.
Not only are evenly divided bipartisan boards ripe for deadlock, requiring congressional approval of the four commissioners makes the EAC reliant on Congress to function. This holds true for any federal agency that requires presidential appointments and Senate approval. However, because a quorum of EAC commissioners is required to make major policy or hiring decisions, its executive structure exacerbates the negative impact of congressional inaction. For example, between 2010 and 2014, the EAC didn’t have a sufficient number of commissioners to carry out its voting technology functions, thanks to Congress’ inability to reach consensus.[i] The agency survived congressional attempts to disband it and resumed normal operations in December 2014, when new commissioners were confirmed by Congress.
Quorum requirements and the risk of political interference make congressional approval of commissioners a threat to the long-term stability of the EAC.
(2) Structural Limitations
Having been plagued by political and administrative challenges for years, it isn’t shocking that the EAC struggles to attract and retain talented senior leadership. This is compounded by the fact that top-level officials at the EAC, including the commissioners and the executive director, earn comparatively low salaries under the executive compensation schedule.
Commissioners are subject to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s pay freeze for senior political officials and, unlike commissioners from some other executive agencies, are explicitly barred from engaging in other business activities or employment.
The pool of qualified candidates for any federal election administration-related position is small to begin with. Salary caps make it challenging for the EAC to retain employees who can leave for election-related opportunities with other federal agencies. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, for example, can “offer additional pay to employees regardless of position” due to their cybersecurity role. Mona Harrington, a former executive director of the EAC, left for CISA in 2022 where her salary increased by at least 16% (exceeding the amount the EAC is permitted pay under the Help America Vote Act).
(3) Insufficient Funding and a Broad Mandate
The EAC’s responsibilities are extensive, critical, and arduous: the agency is responsible for creating a clearinghouse of election administration information in a highly decentralized election system; testing and certifying voting systems amid escalating cyberthreats; and distributing grants to states and territories, a labor-intensive endeavor subject to the whims of Congress.
For most of its existence, the EAC has lacked sufficient funds to carry out its statutory obligations. As a result, they have spent years fighting a losing battle between internal resources and external expectations. Although the EAC received an $8 million increase in funding in fiscal year 2023, it was the first time in over a decade that the agency returned to pre-2010 funding levels. The funding was allocated three months into the fiscal year, leaving only nine months to spend it down. Such fiscal uncertainty undermines the EAC’s ability to plan for the long term when year-over-year funding allocations are in constant flux.
As the focus on election administration has grown among candidates and the American public, the EAC is contending with heightened needs from the election community, an uptick in Freedom of Information Act requests, and an increased workload associated with the transition to Voluntary Voting System Guidelines (VVSG) 2.0. These new and growing demands further strain the agency’s already limited resources, challenging its capacity to meet its broad mandate and emphasizing the need for a more predictable and sufficient funding model that allows for long-term planning and stability.
Turning the Tide: The EAC’s Recent Triumphs
Despite this troubled history, the EAC has taken clear steps to improve internal operations and better serve the election community. It adopted robust, modern standards for voting systems in 2021, partially addressing past concerns over procedural and technical inadequacy. It formed the Local Leadership Council the same year, illustrating a commitment to practitioner insights and mitigating criticisms of being disconnected from election official needs. Most recently, it launched the Election Supporting Technology Evaluation Program, demonstrating the EAC’s ability to fill security and regulatory gaps in non-voting election technology.
By stepping into its clearinghouse role and pivoting to on-demand, online training and usable templates, the EAC has changed course from being a passive bystander to central player in elections. Furthermore, the effective management and oversight of substantial election grants allocated in recent years demonstrate improved financial stewardship and responsiveness to the needs of states and localities.
Altogether, these steps signal a profound transformation in the EAC’s operational and programmatic approach. While challenges remain, the narrative that the EAC is a wholly ineffective organization fails to account for recent progress.
How both Congress and the EAC could do better
While the EAC has been able to achieve marked success despite structural limitations, there are clear opportunities for the Commission and Congress to improve operations going forward.
The EAC, for its part, can focus on addressing specific recommendations from its Office of the Inspector General’s Management Challenges for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission in Fiscal Year 2023 report, including:
- Conduct a formal assessment of staffing needs to meet increasing demands and the transition to VVSG 2.0.
- Couple programmatic expansions with operational support and explore ways to fill operational positions with individuals who have a comprehensive understanding of federal rules and regulations. The EAC remains hindered in this effort by the statutory salary caps that make salaries uncompetitive, even with other federal agencies.
- Engage in formal workforce planning to ensure leadership continuity and address recruitment and retention challenges.
- Strengthen internal controls by updating and finalizing policies and standard operating procedures.
Meanwhile, Congress could:
- Re-evaluate the salary caps that prevent the EAC from being able to pay the same amount as other federal agencies.
- Exempt the EAC from the Paperwork Reduction Act, reducing bureaucratic hurdles and allowing it to be more agile and responsive to the needs of election administrators.
- Provide stable, increased funding to the EAC to enable thoughtful long-term growth and planning.
These improvements may be essential for the EAC to fulfill its mission of ensuring secure, reliable, and accessible elections. By taking these steps, both the EAC and Congress could work together to strengthen the foundation of American democracy in a crucial election year.
[i] It is worth noting that while an evenly divided bipartisan board may make the EAC slow to act and averse to taking risks, the 2020 election exposed how vulnerable election authority structures are to malign partisan interests. In response to suggestions that the EAC’s voting system testing and certification responsibilities should be moved to the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, EAC Commissioner Ben Hovland expressed that while “The EAC may lack the resources and full technical capacity of CISA or any number of larger agencies, […] that is a solvable problem with adequate funding and other relatively simple structural fixes. In contrast, housing the testing and certification program at an independent, bipartisan agency protects against a scenario where a partisan appointee is empowered to decertify voting equipment.”
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