The Secretaries Revolt

Hillary Clinton wants an obscure federal agency to regulate elections. It's a bad idea.


Monday, April 25, 2005 12:01 a.m.


DeForest "Buster" Soaries is resigning this week after a tumultuous stint as the first chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, an obscure federal agency that some want to have increasing power and influence over how the 50 states conduct elections. Let's hope Mr. Soaries's departure--combined with the fact that the EAC will go out of business this year unless Congress reauthorizes it--generates a national debate over just how much we want our elections run from Washington.


Mr. Soaries made headlines last year when he sent a letter to then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge complaining that "the federal government has no agency that has the statutory authority to cancel and reschedule a federal election." Mr. Soaries was clearly hinting that Mr. Ridge should seek emergency legislation empowering the Election Assistance Commission to make such a call in the event of a terrorist attack or other disaster.


His letter immediately set off a storm of outrage. "We hold elections in the middle of war, in the middle of earthquakes, in the middle of whatever it takes," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. "The election is a statutory election. It should go ahead, on schedule." Mr. Ridge declined Mr. Soaries's request to meet on his idea. The EAC chairman was reduced to claiming he had been "misinterpreted" and hadn't actually asked for such authority.


Mr. Soaries is a minister and a Republican who has served as New Jersey's secretary of state. He is known for both his inspirational speeches and a keen desire to expand his bureaucratic sandbox. With the Constitution stipulating that states and localities control the "time, manner and place" of elections unless Congress specifically overrides them, the EAC was envisioned as having a limited role when Congress created it in the wake of the disputed 2000 election. Most believed it would be restricted to providing states and localities with election advice and grants, along with setting some basic standards.


But Mr. Soaries wanted more. "We have a federal election without federal involvement," he has complained. "With 200,000 precincts in the country, there's a lot of room for variance." He gave an entire speech on EAC voting standards for the states without even once mentioning the word "voluntary." His resignation this week stemmed in part from his belief that the government hadn't given the EAC enough money or any rule-making authority over the states.


The drive to expand the EAC's power touched off a revolt from the National Association of Secretaries of State. In February, the association, which represents the top election officials of all 50 states, overwhelmingly approved a formal resolution that asked Congress to dissolve the EAC after the 2006 election. The secretaries noted that Sens. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, both likely 2008 presidential contenders, have introduced legislation that would give the EAC rule-making authority and dictate national standards for administering elections. "The passage of any such law would undercut the states' ability to effectively administer elections and interfere with the progress they have made in implementing election reforms," the secretaries of state wrote in a letter to Congress.


Bill Gardner, New Hampshire's Democratic secretary of state, wrote the resolution. He says he vividly recalls how the Federal Election Commission used its rule-making authority to wipe out the individual campaign finance laws of every state in a single regulatory move in the 1970s. He says the country should avoid a pell-mell rush to federalize elections or to establish a national voter ID card, a move under consideration by a new Commission on Federal Election Reform headed by Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James Baker.


Everyone agrees that states and counties need help in improving the efficiency and integrity of elections. The Florida debacle of 2000 revealed how flawed some of the thousands of scattershot decisions local election bodies make can be. Robert Pastor, executive director of the Carter-Baker commission, says an international comparison he made of electoral systems concluded that the U.S. has "unquestionably the weakest in North America."


But that recognition shouldn't lead to the expansive role Mr. Soaries wanted for the Electoral Assistance Commission. The commission is not an appropriate vehicle for deciding the details of how our elections are run. True, it has had some accomplishments in coming up with creative ways to help states, such as handing out best-practices guidelines to election officials that detail model administrative procedures. It is also working with states to make sure every one has a legal definition of what constitutes a valid vote as well as a statewide voter registration system that will weed out duplicates.


But all too often it has shown signs of bureaucratic mission creep. Last year the EAC approved a standard that allowed states to process a voter registration form even though the potential voter had not checked the "yes" box next to a question as to whether he was a citizen. The Justice Department had to remind the EAC that Congress had made it clear that any registration form is incomplete if the citizenship box is not checked. The EAC also delayed appointment of its executive committee for a year even though the law required that it be done within 60 days. Can we trust our elections to a body that cannot follow clear federal law and its own rules of procedure?


With the EAC's mandate ending in October it's time lawmakers hold a debate on how it can be restructured. One option would be to make its members appointed by leaders of Congress from both parties instead of by the president, which would remove any implication that the commission had rule-making authority. Another idea would let state and local election officials elect the commission's members and turn it into a body explicitly concerned with helping states improve election procedures rather than issuing edicts.


What is clear is that the currently constituted EAC carries with it a potential for partisan abuse. Even though current law requires the commission have an equal number of Democratic and Republican commission members, it could still tilt in a clear partisan direction if an unscrupulous president decided to stack it with recess appointments just before an election. "Democrats should think of a Richard Nixon with that kind of power, and Republicans might imagine a Hillary Clinton," warns a Democratic secretary of state. Our elections are too important to, on the one hand, ignore the mistakes our local officials can make. or on the other have a federal body micromanage the process from Washington.


Copyright 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.



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