House moves to eliminate commission overseeing voting system security

Amid allegations at the highest levels that all is not right with America’s voting system, it seems strange that legislation would be proposed that eliminates an organization created specifically to maintain that voting system’s security. But these are strange times.

HR 634 passed through the Committee on House Administration today, clearing a path for it to be sponsored and proposed for voting. The bill would amend the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to eliminate the Election Assistance Commission.

HAVA was a response to the troubles encountered in various voting systems during the 2000 election. The EAC, established as part of the act, certifies voting systems, creates (voluntary) guidelines and audits programs funded through HAVA.

Now, the EAC isn’t exactly the pride and joy of our electoral system. In fact, for years it didn’t even have a quorum with which to address various voting system issues. Perhaps this long-term neglect is also what led to lax security practices that allowed the EAC itself to be hacked last year. At any rate, it’s back in action now — possibly just in time to be eliminated.

It’s not the first time this has been proposed — not even the second. Republicans, including the current chairman of the Committee that okayed HR 634, Congressman Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), say that the EAC was meant to be a temporary measure, that its responsibilities can be handled by the Federal Election Commission and that shutting it down will save $33 million per year.

There’s something to these arguments, of course, but it seems like extraordinarily bad timing to kill the EAC immediately after an election marred by allegations of fake voting, hacks and other improprieties. The Department of Homeland Security just last month even designated election systems as “critical infrastructure” and will be helping secure them — mainly in a physical sense, though.

Commission Chair Thomas Hicks defended the EAC in a statement:

Efforts to dismantle the Election Assistance Commission are seriously out of step with the current U.S. election landscape. At a time when the Department of Homeland Security has designated election systems as part of the country’s critical infrastructure, election officials face cybersecurity threats, our nation’s voting machinery is aging and there are accusations of election irregularities, the EAC is the only federal agency bridging the gap between federal guidance and the needs of state and local election officials.

A letter signed by 38 organizations (PDF), including the NAACP and League of Women Voters, opposed HR 634 and another that would remove public funding of elections. “The presidential public financing system and the EAC are important components of an honest and fair election system that suffer from congressional neglect and gridlock, not from any inherent flaw.”

Democrats wrote to the House Committee to share their views in like manner:

Expanding the FEC’s mandate to include the testing and verification of our nation’s voting procedures confuses the mission of the FEC and may lead to troubling conflicts of interest. It is also important to note that the FEC has for years been hobbled by its partisan construction. Recognizing this, it seems foolish — or worse, cynical — to layer even more responsibilities on the strained FEC.

The vast majority of Americans want to improve our institutions of democracy. Eliminating the Presidential public financing system and terminating the Election Administration Commission would represent an enormous step in the wrong direction.

HR 634 is still in the earliest stages of becoming law, but similar bills have passed the House before and there are even fewer in Congress now who would oppose this untimely proposal.