With the 2000 presidential election’s voting debacle still raw, President George W. Bush in 2002, signed into law the “Help America Vote Act,” which he promised would help “ensure the integrity and efficiency of voting processes in federal elections.”
A key component: the Election Assistance Commission, a new, bipartisan federal agency tasked with adopting voting system guidelines, distributing grants and otherwise aiding states in improving their election processes.
But the little commission soon hit downdrafts. Congress routinely cut its already modest budget. The federal government moved its headquarters from prime digs in downtown Washington, DC, to a nondescript office tower in suburban Maryland. Then in 2010, the Election Assistance Commission began a nearly five-year stretch where it lacked enough appointed commissioners to conduct meetings, and, therefore, conduct its most important business. Some members of Congress tried, and failed, to kill what had effectively become a zombie agency.
Now, after years of such turbulence, three of the agency’s four commissioner slots are filled — enough, at least, to function. And today, Thomas Hicks, a Democrat and former attorney for the Committee on House Administration, assumes the Election Assistance Commission’s chairmanship.
For Hicks, the post is years coming: President Barack Obama initially nominated him in early 2010, but the Senate didn’t appoint him to the commission until late 2014. His challenges are numerous, from helping ensure elections are free and fair to grappling with advocacy groups’ outrage over the actions of his agency’s executive director.
The Center for Public Integrity recently spoke with Hicks about his plans for his one-year chairmanship, which will coincide with 2016 presidential and congressional elections. The interview has been edited for length and clarity:
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What are your top agenda items for the year that you’ll have the chairmanship?
I would like to focus on are the machine issue — to ensure that the states that bought machines with [Help America Vote Act] funds in the last 10 years or so have those machines up and running and are up to the standards they should be. I want to make sure that those with disabilities are not being left behind. HAVA is very strong in saying that it [aims] to ensure that those with disabilities have the same access to the ballot, and the same opportunity to cast those ballots. Third, I want to get more people involved … We can encourage states to recruit more poll workers. We can encourage states to get more information out to voters. A fourth thing: More states should participate in online voter registration. You get rid of a lot of [the] issues you have with poor handwriting, clerical errors, errors in general. It saves money and more people are likely to use electronics now as opposed to use a paper form of registration.
What grade would you give the state of voting machines right now?
I don’t know if I could overall give a grade. There are different aspects to the machines that range from A to F. States are doing a lot to ensure that they are keeping these machines up and running on the limited budgets they have. They are looking at ways to improve or replace these machines, whether that’s commercial, off-the-shelf software or upgrading their machines, in general.
Explain the merits of — or downsides to — early voting in the states.
Early voting helps those individuals who, like myself, are never in the jurisdiction on Election Day. Virginia allows me to either go to my government center and vote early or to cast a mail-in ballot. It’s particularly helpful for individuals who don’t have the ability to vote on Election Day during that 12-hour period, from 7 am to 7 pm. It’s something that should be used more.
What challenges do we have in 2016 in regard to giving proper polling access to people who may have, for one reason or another, some challenge in casting their ballot?
I look at New York City. It has the largest population of Chinese individuals outside [of China]. A certain percentage of those folks only speak Chinese — Mandarin or some variation. If you do not offer some sort of assistance for these folks to cast their ballots, that is doing a disservice. English is not the official language of this country. A large percentage of folks speak English, but that does not mean that English has to be offered exclusively. Offering this does not necessarily mean we are giving up what it means to be American. It gives folks who can vote an opportunity to participate in the system and understand what they’re actually doing.
What’s the proper amount of identification needed in order to cast a ballot — and prevent against fraud?
The proper amount is the amount that’s not incumbent on the individual to seek that identification. If I have to jump through nine hoops just to obtain identification that allows me to exercise my constitutional rights, that’s too cumbersome and shouldn’t be in place. The photo ID issue should be looked at in terms of helping people who may not have photo ID obtain photo ID … whether that’s public assistance, or whatever.
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Is voter fraud real and widespread? Or is the issue overblown?
You’re always going to hear about cases of voter fraud. To what extend it is affecting elections should be looked at. But you also have cases of voter suppression. That should be looked at with the same fervor. If my vote is being denied, it is the same as someone who is committing voter fraud.
We’re entering an election season where presidential candidates and congressional candidates — and their allies — will have more resources than ever before. To what degree to you believe this will have an effect on voter issues, be it voter promotion or suppression efforts from Democrats or Republicans?
If you look at any election, you will see false materials being put out. This is one of the reasons why election officials need to have updated websites as much as they can — and clear websites so individuals know that they can trust that information. We hope we can provide direction to information about polling hours; what forms of ID they need to bring to the polls, if any; what kinds of assistance that is available; what rights they have once they get to the polls.
Internet voting seems to be all the rage in some quarters. What are the pros and cons to a state allowing a state allowing Internet voting in some form or fashion?
A pro is that it looks at the voting process more so in the 21st century. One of my friends talked to me about how we can get a robot to Mars about 150 million miles away and land it in the space of a football field and get it to function. Yet we can’t electronically transfer voting ballots back to precincts from other places. But that goes to the major con: security. If there’s going to be electronic return of ballots, it needs to be done in a secure manner to ensure votes are not being manipulated. If the integrity of the election itself is called into question, people will not want to participate in the system.
Is it closer to two-to-four years, or 20-to-40 years before we see widespread Internet voting?
We might not be voting using these methods in my lifetime, but I hope we can in my children’s lifetime. I don’t think it’s in two years, but I don’t know if it’s as long as 40 years, either.
What are the pros and cons to the government automatically registering an eligible person to vote whether they want it or not?
I look at it in the realm of the Selective Service. When I was 18, I was told I had to register for the Selective Service. When individuals turn 18, they should be given the option to be automatically registered to vote. Part of my 1st Amendment rights is not only the ability to speak — but also the ability not to speak. So it has to be a serious consideration that rights are not being trampled. We also must not unduly give information out that might be compromising an individual’s safety. For example, some voter registration lists are public. So if I’m automatically registered to vote, and my information is made public and I’m a police officer, or a law enforcement individual whose information should be kept private, is this putting my life in jeopardy or my family’s life in jeopardy? Also, there are people who are victims of domestic violence. You have to do it in a realm that ensures safety and isn’t done haphazardly.
What keeps you up at night as you enter your chairmanship? Hanging chads? Five-hour-long lines outside the polls?
The things that keep me up at night go from A to Z, from registering voters to actually having ballots accurately counted and races properly certified. The EAC is poised to assist states and groups to ensure that we move the election process forward. 2000 was the bellwether. But issues happen in every election. The EAC needs to be there to assist states and individuals to ensure these things don’t happen.
How do you ensure that, though?
One of the big things I hope to do is poll worker recruitment. There’s always been that joke that poll workers are old and afraid of technology. Why are we not using more young people, more disabled people, more people with bilingual status? Part of that comes from saying you have to have people who are willing to work the entire day, willing to be on their feet for 12 hours. If we could break it up, say, four hours here, four hours there, you might get a lot more people to do it.
What would be your pitch to states to make them go in this direction?
Look at ways to provide incentives for people getting involved. Give school credit to students. Or look at the tax code to provide pay incentives. Also, consider government employees who couldn’t do it for 12 hours, but possibly four or six. Then there are teachers. If schools are being used for polling stations, could the teachers work the polls for four hours that day. They have a wealth of individual knowledge to help as poll workers. This is for the states to really delve into.
You’ve heard the criticism, particularly from some Republicans that the EAC has outlives its usefulness — that it should be wrapped into another agency or disbanded altogether. Why is the EAC still relevant?
Until Congress passes a law in their chambers and the president signs it, I’m approaching my job as if the agency is here today, here tomorrow. The relevancy comes from more than just giving money to states. We give guidance to states and individuals to help improve their elections. The agency is as relevant now in 2016 as it was in 2002, when President Bush signed it into law.
Your annual budget for the entire agency — less than $10 million — is equivalent to what a single super PAC might spend in a month. Do you have the resources to adequately fulfill its mission?
Any agency would love to have additional resources. We will do the best with what the Congress and the president gives us. There are always additional things we’d love to do, but for right now, with budgets all over being cut, we’re happy with what we have.
The agency went through a period of time when it effectively could not function because it didn’t have commissioners. Now that you do have a quorum of commissioners, what is the EAC able to do today that you couldn’t do before?
One of the biggest things is addressing voting system guidelines. The guidelines were written before the iPhone. To update our standards and bring them into the second decade of the 21st century [would be] huge and couldn’t be done without commissioners. We also can help give states confidence that elections are being run properly.
For you personally, is your tenure going to be one where you lead from behind the scenes, or do you expect to be public-facing?
It’s the agency, not the official. We’re here to help, and I’m a conduit. I don’t need the limelight. I just want to ensure elections run smoothly. And it’s something I’ve always believed in. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have waited the five years for the appointment to come through.
Copyright 2016, The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.