Congress mulls abolishing federal voting agency

Newly released congressional legislation would abolish the federal agency that helps states administer elections — removing a key source of assistance and expertise at a time when U.S. voting systems are increasingly under threat from foreign attacks and domestic efforts to impose barriers to the ballot box.

Buried in an appropriations bill released Wednesday is language calling for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to “establish and carry out a termination plan under which, effective 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Commission shall terminate and shall no longer carry out any programs or activities during fiscal year 2018 or any succeeding fiscal year.”

The plan to scrap the EAC isn’t mentioned in an Appropriations Committee press release about the bill.  A spokeswoman for the committee didn’t immediately respond to The Daily Democracy’s request for comment.

The legislation appears after a six-day period in which the EAC has appeared to demonstrate its value as a force for improvements in election administration. Last week, its Republican-appointed chair, Matthew Masterson, laid out a plan for how federal agencies can work together to avert foreign attacks on U.S. election systems—something Masterson said the EAC already has been doing. And Thursday, the commission released a comprehensive report on the 2016 election containing crucial data on voter turnout, registration, and methods of voting, which one voting activist called a “must read.”

“My father told me as a kid not to use the word ‘stupid’ except when it literally applied,” Doug Chapin, a widely respected election administration expert at the University of Minnesota, wrote on Twitter Thursday. “It applies now. Abolishing the EAC is stupid.”

Republicans have often chafed at any federal involvement in voting, which the Constitution makes clear is primarily a state responsibility.

The EAC was established in 2002 as part of the Help America Vote Act, which aimed to help states modernize their election systems after the Florida 2000 fiasco. The agency helps administer voluntary guidelines for voting systems, maintains the federal voter registration form, and produces research on election administration, among other duties. It has four commissioners, two Republican-appointed and two-Democratic appointed.

This isn’t the first time the GOP has introduced legislation to abolish the EAC. It did so in 2011, 2013, and 2015. But with a fellow Republicn now in the White House, this year’s effort appears more likely to succeed.

In February, a bill to end the EAC was approved by the House Administration committee, whose chairman, Rep. Gregg Harper of Mississippi (pictured), has led the charge against the agency.

“The EAC does not register voters, it does not conduct recounts, nor does it have any enforcement authority over laws governing voter registration or anything else essential to the operation of our elections,” Harper said in a statement at that time. “Bottom line, the agency does not administer elections, and the time to eliminate the EAC has come.”

Responding to Harper’s bill, Thomas Hicks, a Democratic-appointed member of the commission, called the plan “seriously out of step with the current U.S. election landscape.”

The EAC drew attention last year when its executive director, Brian Newby, agreed to a request by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to change the federal voter registration form to allow states to require documentary proof of citizenship from people registering to vote. The change to the form was put on hold by a federal court, which found that Newby hadn’t gotten the required approval from the EAC’s commissioners. Litigation over the issue is ongoing.

Newby, a former local election official in Kansas, is an ally of Kobach, who is now the de facto director of a controversial White House commission on voter fraud. Under its previous executive director, the EAC had rejected two earlier requests by Kobach to change the form.

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