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Week of 9.8.06

Deforest Soaries on the Politics of Voting

David Brancaccio talks to Deforest Soaries, the former Chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, which was created by Congress as the first federal body to watch over voting issues.

Brancaccio: When did you get interested in our elections?

Deforest Soaries Soaries: I started out as a 16 year old registering people to vote. When I was growing up, we used to play basketball in a park that was never shoveled when it snowed. The basketball rims were never fixed. And we understood then that there was a relationship between public policy and our quality of life.

Brancaccio: Going into your job as the chairman of the EAC, what were your thoughts about the challenge at hand?

Soaries: Well, I was very excited, because this was historic. Never before had the federal government been involved in helping Americans vote. I was excited because there was almost $4 billion attached to this legislation that the federal government would spend to help states not only build a new voting administration but also to do research ... My vision was to take the research money and develop a prototype to ensure that the private sector was building machines that fit the requirements.

Brancaccio: So you come to the job full of optimism. There's supposedly big dollar figures attached to the work that the commission will do. But if memory serves, things got off to a slow start over there.

Soaries: Well, to say that it got off to a slow start is really to compliment the process. This was a tragedy. Right after we were confirmed, the four of us who were confirmed, we discovered that there was no operating budget for the commission itself. There were no offices. There were no telephones. I literally went to Washington on the first Monday of January and no place to report for work. We had to spend time looking for office space. There were no telephones. We had no business cards. There were no computers. We literally had to create a federal agency. And mind you, this was January of the same year that we were having our next presidential election. We had no money to pay rent even if we found an office. And so I felt like the head of a non-profit organization trying to raise funds to start an enterprise which, in fact, was mandated by federal law.

Brancaccio: Why do you suppose you were presented with that situation? Do you think there was a lack of serious purpose when they set this thing up?

Soaries: We asked that very question when we got to Washington and we were convinced for three days that this was an oversight. Congress in its budget negotiations just failed to really take care of the budget requirements that the commission needed. But a few days after we got to Washington, when we presented to these same members of Congress information that could help solve the problem, they never responded. We went to the White House. The White House helped us a bit.

But the fact is Congress and the White House are involved in a conspiracy of neglect. And notwithstanding the responsibilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact is my conclusion was that very few members of Congress, very few people in the White House cared enough about true election reform to ensure that this commission had capacity.

Brancaccio: Why do you think that is?

Soaries: I think that is, in large measure, because the headlines went away and politicians respond to headlines. I think it's true because the average elected official in Washington assumes the process cannot be too bad because, after all, it produced them 'How bad can the voting process be if I'm now elected Congressman?' The fact is in 2000, to the person, members of Congress and in the executive branch they cried out and said, listen, this will never happen again. But it's now 2006 and we are no more certain today than we were in 2000 that we will have an embarrassing moment and a tragic outcome in this year's election.

Brancaccio: So what did the states have to do differently? They had to get rid of the hanging chads, right, but beyond that?

Soaries: They had to get rid of punch card machines. And they had to get rid of lever machines. Beyond that, states had to also have electronic voting machines that made it possible for people who are physically handicapped to vote in private ... and the computerized voting machine made it very easy for, particularly, the blind. I went to vote with a fellow in Washington, D.C. who had voted for the first time in private without someone pushing the lever for him.

Brancaccio: That sounds very exciting.

Soaries: It's very exciting. But there were some flaws involved. And the main flaw was that we just didn't know what we didn't know about these computerized voting machines. And computer experts were increasingly pointing out flaws and fears in the electronic voting process. Elections officials and technologists, especially those involved in security were at odds with each other.

Brancaccio: Now I thought the commission was supposed to conduct research on the electronic voting machines?

Soaries: Well the commission had in the legislation, $40 million that was authorized for research. When we got to Washington in January of 2004, we had zero dollars appropriated ... And what we discovered was that the authorization far outpaced the appropriation. And we had zero dollars for research year one of the EAC, which meant that we had to have public hearings. We had to depend on other institutions to do research on our behalf. We had to use the information that already existed to craft the best practices to distribute throughout the country. And we had to do all of that in ten months.

Brancaccio: You've spent a lot of time looking at this. What are your specific concerns even now about electronic voting machines?

Soaries: The electronic voting machine is, I think, a very useful tool. The problem is we don't know what we don't know. ... I don't think there's a vast conspiracy to manipulate elections. The problem is I can't with confidence assure you that it's not possible. I can't assure you that the programming is sufficiently scrutinized or analyzed to predict total integrity in the election. That's a problem.

Another problem is that we have no data on the malfunction rate of these machines. After the 2000 election we knew that the punch cards did not work adequately and the lever machines did not work adequately. After the 2004 election, we tried to collect data to ensure that we knew how often a particular type of machine malfunctioned. But the states did not have to send us the information. Therefore we can't tell you today that the machine you vote on in your town now functions at any particular rate around the country.

EAC has had insufficient funds to expand its capacity to answer that question. That's a problem. And they are grossly under funded. And quite frankly people should know they're no longer authorized. The authorization for EAC itself has expired, which means that one member of Congress can close it down during the budget because he doesn't like what they're going to say. And that's why they're so afraid to speak.

Brancaccio: How did all these challenges make you feel as you were trying to help run this place?

Soaries: I really felt that I had been deceived. I had been deceived by the White House which convinced me that the president took this very seriously. And I had been deceived by the Congress which convinced me that there was a real bipartisan consensus for election reform. That deception made me a bit angry but I stayed focused while I was there to ensure that we had the best possible outcome in November of 2004.

Brancaccio: So you don't see us as a model for the rest of the world when it comes to running elections?

Soaries: I went to Belgium, to speak for the country at a conference with international elections officials. And no, I don't see us as a model. There are countries that do it better. India does it better than we do.

Brancaccio: The country of India runs elections more efficiently than the United States of America?

Soaries: Yes, sir.

Brancaccio: So it sounds like things got very frustrating for you on that commission?

Soaries: Right after the [2004] election I notified the White House that I was leaving. I've got 16 year old sons. And I'd rather spend time with them at their basketball games than to work in Washington with a Congress and a White House that is not really committed to this task, which I thought was fundamental to our democracy.

Brancaccio: What are you worried about specifically, that might happen this fall during the election cycle?

Soaries: Something is going to happen. There's going to be a power outage, where some machines don't work. And there's no contingency plan. There's going to be a close race, where there's an inability to do a recount that satisfies everyone's needs. There's going to be an accusation of tampering that can't be disproven. There are going to be machine malfunctions that— are either documented or undocumented. And in either case, that's a problem. There are going to activists that are continuously challenging the corporations that make these machines.