Election Assistance Commission

Panel Faces Partisanship Allegations

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 22, 2007

In late 2003, the first four commissioners of the newly formed, bipartisan Election Assistance Commission were given a tall order: Help states overhaul their election procedures so that the acrimony that followed the contested 2000 presidential election would not be repeated.

First, they had to find office space, one of many early administrative hurdles that prevented the cash-strapped commission from getting going until well into the 2004 presidential election.

But, three years later, as it prepares for its second presidential election, the agency is facing far more serious problems: inquiries over a rash of allegations of partisan decision making.

Commissioners blame management failures and incomplete policies that have plagued the agency since the beginning. "We weren't able to develop a really strong foundation as a federal agency," said Gracia H. Hillman, the only commissioner who has been on the panel from the beginning.

Activist groups have raised questions about whether, in response to pressure from the Justice Department, the commission altered or delayed research to play down findings on sensitive topics such as voter fraud and voter identification laws that many Republican figures and appointees would have found objectionable.

"There has been increasing evidence of improper attempts to exert political pressure on the EAC to influence the agency's decisions on election-related matters," said Wendy Weiser, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the liberal Brennan Center of Justice at New York University School of Law, who has reviewed thousands of pages of the commission's internal documents.

Meanwhile, the agency's inspector general, Curtis Crider, is investigating the agency's research into voter fraud, voter intimidation and voter identification laws.

The House Administration Committee and the Senate Rules Committee are planning to hold oversight hearings this summer, with House staff members closely studying the links between the EAC and Justice Department, which itself is under scrutiny over partisanship concerns.

"We thought it would be a good government group," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairman of House Administration subcommittee on elections, "and it's turned into a far more politicized group than I think any of us imagined."

The agency's commissioners say politics did not play a role, noting that the problem stemmed from a flawed research system. "It was less inappropriate badgering or influence from Justice, but it really exposed our management weaknesses," Hillman said.

The inquiries -- for which more than 40,000 pages of documents have been furnished -- have tied up the agency's limited resources as the 2008 election fast approaches. Among other things, the agency, with just 19 staff members, is issuing technical guidelines for the testing and certification of voting machines, a glossary of Spanish election terms and a guide to ballot design.

In its first years, the EAC's primary goal was to distribute more than $2 billion to states for upgrading voting equipment and complying with federal election standards. The going was not easy. State officials complained that the panel's work was an unwarranted intrusion; others said it was toothless and not doing enough to confront the problems voters faced.

The most recent controversy stemmed from last summer, when two reports were prepared for the agency, one about voter fraud and intimidation, the other about voter identification laws. But they did not see the light of day for several months.

Facing multiple open-records requests, the panel released its voter intimidation and fraud report in December. The report said that "there is a great deal of debate" about the topic. Later, it was revealed that the original report had been changed; it had said that voter fraud was virtually nonexistent. Commissioners say the original report went too far in reaching its conclusions about voter fraud.

In March, after lawmakers demanded a copy, the panel also released its voter identification report.

Civil rights groups suspected undue influence from the Justice Department, echoing allegations in the controversy over the firings of U.S. attorneys.

"Is it an attempt by you to put pressure on me -- or the EAC?" asked one disclosed 2005 e-mail from Paul S. DeGregorio, then the EAC chairman, to Hans A. von Spakovsky, at that time counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights and a member of the agency's advisory board.

The commission is now reevaluating its research procedures.

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