By Tova Andrea Wang
Thursday, August 30, 2007
After the 2000 Florida election debacle, Congress established a body called the Election Assistance Commission to improve voting and democracy in this country. Two years ago, the commission approached me about doing a project that would take a preliminary look at voter fraud and intimidation and make recommendations for further research on the issues.
Because my approach to election issues tends to be more closely aligned with Democrats, I was paired with a Republican co-author. To further remove any taint of partisanship, my co-author and I convened a bipartisan working group to help us. We spent a year doing research and consulting with leaders in the field to produce a draft report. What happened next seems inexplicable. After submitting the draft in July 2006, we were barred by the commission's staff from having anything more to do with it.
What was the problem? In all the time we were doing our research and drafting the report, neither the staff nor the commissioners, who were continually advised of our activities and the substance of our work, raised any concerns about the direction we were going or the research findings.
Yet, after sitting on the draft for six months, the EAC publicly released a report -- citing it as based on work by me and my co-author -- that completely stood our own work on its head.
Consider the title. Whereas the commission is mandated by law to study voter fraud and intimidation, this new report was titled simply "Election Crimes" and excluded a wide range of serious offenses that harm the system and suppress voting but are not currently crimes under the U.S. criminal code.
We said that our preliminary research found widespread agreement among administrators, academics and election experts from all points on the political spectrum that allegations of fraud through voter impersonation at polling places were greatly exaggerated. We noted that this position was supported by existing research and an analysis of several years of news articles. The commission chose instead to state that the issue was a matter of considerable debate. And while we found that problems of voter intimidation were still prevalent in a variety of forms, the commission excluded much of the discussion of voter intimidation.
We also raised questions about the way the Justice Department was handling complaints of fraud and intimidation. The commission excised all references to the department that might be construed as critical -- or that Justice officials later took issue with. And all of the suggestions we received from political scientists and other scholars regarding methodologies for a more scientifically rigorous look at these problems were omitted.
Once these "revisions" to the report were revealed this spring, there was an uproar among voting rights advocates. I was eager to set the record straight, but the commission would not allow me to speak about the report because of a broad "confidentiality provision" in my contract. The EAC finally released me from the gag order this summer, and, under pressure from Congress, it has publicly released 40,000 pages of revealing documents and e-mail.
What was behind the strange handling of our report? It's still unclear, but it is worth noting that during the time the commission was holding our draft, claims about voter fraud and efforts to advance the cause of strict voter identification laws were at a fever pitch in Congress and the states. And it has been reported that some U.S. attorneys were being fired because they failed to pursue weakly supported voter fraud cases with sufficient zeal.
We have learned that several Republican officials, including a state official, a former political appointee at the Justice Department and current Federal Election Commission member (Hans Von Spakovsky), and a Capitol Hill staffer complained about our project, particularly about my role in it. Officials at Justice were actively involved in the report throughout the process and even exerted some degree of editorial control over the new report. And it is evident from the commission's "document dump" that its Republican general counsel assumed primary control over the rewriting of the report.
Even without a smoking gun showing political motives in the handling of the draft, the results are disappointing. This is not the way an institution created to promote democracy should function. A government entity that seeks democratic progress should be transparent. It should not be in the business of suppressing information or ideas. Such an institution must be thoroughly insulated from political interference from outside operatives or other parts of the executive branch.
We need an institution like the Election Assistance Commission to provide guidance and research information to the states, election officials, elected leaders and voters. But this agency's structure and procedures need to be seriously reexamined in light of this episode. I support a strong, well-funded EAC that can help our country find reforms to the election system that will make voting more accessible, fair and accurate. But only after it finds some reforms for itself.
The writer is Democracy Fellow at the Century Foundation.