In the interview, Hicks responded to Harper’s criticism of the EAC’s relevance by comparing its unheralded work to a city sanitation department that clears the streets after a snowstorm. “If you don’t notice it,” Hicks said, “that means we’re doing our job.”
Yet the EAC’s work hasn’t always gone unnoticed, and last year it found itself at war with its closest allies over a decision that inserted the commission into the complicated national politics of voter ID laws. One of the agency’s few regulatory powers is to approve the language of the federal voter registration applicants that states send out to their residents. Since 2002, the EAC’s commissioners have rejected attempts by certain states to demand proof of citizenship as part of the form’s instructions. But without the knowledge of the agency’s three current commissioners, last year the EAC’s executive director, Brian Newby, acted unilaterally to grant requests from elections officials in Kansas, Georgia, and Alabama to send out registration forms requiring proof of citizenship. Newby’s decision prompted a lawsuit from voting-rights groups and an angry rebuke from congressional Democrats, who wrote in a letter that the change “may already have impaired the legitimate right to vote of many Americans.”
Newby claimed that because it was an administrative matter, he had the authority to make the decision himself. But EAC commissioners, including Hicks, disagreed, and the Justice Department declined to defend the decision in court. The case is still pending.
For now, organizations like the Brennan Center are in the awkward position of suing the EAC in court while fighting for its survival before Congress. The twin battles are not inconsistent, Weiser said. While Newby’s decision allowing a proof-of-citizenship requirement was “a dramatic misstep,” she said, “that doesn’t mean we don’t support the continued existence of the EAC.”
Weiser noted that last year, 42 states were using voting machines that were more than a decade old, which is close to their expiration date and makes them more vulnerable to hacking. “We are in a state of emergency nationally with respect to our voting machines,” she told me.
GOP attempts to eliminate the Election Assistance Commission have passed out of committee but not made it to the House floor for a vote in the last four years. Spokesmen for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy wouldn’t say whether that would change this time. While voting-rights organizations have come out against the bill, the National Association of Secretaries of States narrowly approved a resolution in 2015 calling on Congress not to reauthorize or fund the EAC. That message emerged out of concerns about the commission “eventually evolving into a regulatory body” and encroaching on the authority of individual states to run their own elections. With secretaries of state set to gather in Washington D.C. this week for an annual conference, the EAC is likely to be a topic of discussion, a spokeswoman for the association said.