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"As Shallow as a Dry Brook": Buster Soaries on the Federal Commitment to Election Reform

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“It was the worst experience of my life,” DeForest “Buster” Soaries said of his 16 months as the first head of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Soaries is a faith-based community development pioneer, former New Jersey secretary of state, and currently senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, N. J. In early 2003, he received a call from the White House: President Bush wanted him to serve on a new commission that was established by the 2002 Help America Vote Act to assist with federal elections and establish minimum election administration standards. Soaries agreed to serve.

 

The Long Road to Confirmation

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The confirmation process took a lot longer than Soaries had anticipated. HAVA called for the four EAC commissioners to be appointed by February 26, 2003, but background checks on the nominees were not completed until June of that year. Confirmation was expected by September, so Soaries made arrangements to move to Washington and enroll his twin sons in their first year of high school there. “Although it was late,” Soaries said in a January 2007 interview, “I did not perceive that it was too late.”  He expected that they would have “14 months of solid work” before the 2004 presidential election.

By August it had become clear that the appointment was “more tentative than firm,” Soaries said, so he decided to enroll his boys in high school back home and planned to commute to Washington. Other commissioners had to make similar adjustments, Soaries recalled. One closed down his law practice; another stopped accepting clients for her contracting firm. Because of the delays and uncertainty, “by that time I was prepared to withdraw,” Soaries said. “But if I had, the EAC wouldn’t have been able to get started in time to do anything in ’04, and anything bad in the election would have been blamed on this guy from New Jersey who pulled out.”

The delays were costly. Not only would Soaries have to maintain two households on one salary (“I couldn’t receive my church salary anymore because of federal ethics rules, even though I was still preaching,” he said), the commission would have only 10 months to prepare for the presidential election. The commissioners were finally confirmed on December 13 and decided to begin their work immediately after the holidays, in January 2004.

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The Help America Vote Act, which had created the EAC, had taken a long time to get off the ground, too: It didn’t pass until two years after the 2000 presidential election. Soaries explained that, on the one hand, he wasn’t cynical about Congress taking so long to pass HAVA because 9/11 had happened in the interim. On the other hand, he wondered why it hadn’t passed much earlier. “If Washington really believed Florida 2000 was a national disgrace,” he said, “it would have passed HAVA before 9/11. It’s not rocket science.” And if the Bush administration had had any “sense of urgency,” he argued, it would have “started identifying candidates for the EAC while HAVA was still being discussed.”


The EAC Begins Its Work

Some unpleasant surprises awaited the newly confirmed EAC commissioners when they arrived in Washington. “Number one,” Soaries recounted, “we have no office. So when we report to Washington we agree to meet at a hotel. There’s no place designated for us to report. There was no ‘they’ to give us office space. Congress and the White House confirmed us and appointed us and then moved back to Iraq. We have no telephone, no telephone number, no place to report. The White House could have made preparations. We were confirmed December 13, and that was it.”

Not only was the EAC without office space, it was badly underfunded, with only $1.2 million dollars with which to secure and furnish office space, pay the commissioners and staff, and carry out the mission HAVA had laid out for it.

HAVA had transferred the Federal Election Commission’s Office of Election Administration to the EAC, Soaries explained, so the commissioners arranged to use FEC office space to facilitate the transfer. The EAC didn’t get its own office space until April 2004.

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The commission settled in to begin work on its assigned tasks. It was to distribute money to the states for the purchase of new voting equipment—by this time many had purchased equipment and were awaiting reimbursement—and it was to research voting systems and establish technology standards for them. The commission has minimal regulatory authority, but Soaries didn’t see that as a problem: “I felt the lack of regulatory authority would not impair our work because if we had $10 million for research, we could say this technology is standard for voting equipment, and no one would be caught dead choosing anything below that standard.”

The trouble was that although HAVA had authorized millions of dollars for research on voting equipment, Congress didn’t appropriate a penny for that purpose during Soaries’s tenure. With neither research nor regulatory authority, he said, “all you have is a soapbox.”

Another surprise for the commissioners was that states were receiving hundreds of millions of dollars to buy voting equipment according to the HAVA-mandated schedule but were being given virtually no guidance regarding how to spend it. When Congress became aware of the trouble, Soaries said, it asked the EAC to recommend solutions. So the commissioners prepared a budget outlining what the commission would need in terms of money and timing. “But the Office of Management and Budget stopped us from giving the document to Congress,” he recalled. “‘You don’t have bypass authority.’ they said.”

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Meg E. Cox is a freelance writer, editor, and book indexer in Chicago. She writes a monthly newspaper column on voting rights and electoral administration, and her feature articles have appeared in several national magazines.

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