Election Reform: A Work In Progress

During testimony before Congress in February, members of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission reported that election reforms mandated under the Help America Vote Act of 2002 are working, but they warned that HAVA is a success story in progress.

The former EAC chair, DeForest Soaries Jr., who played a key role in building the EAC from the ground up, knows this firsthand. In October 2002, Congress created the four-member commission, which currently includes Gracia Hillman, chair; Paul DeGregorio, vice chair; Ray Martinez III; and Soaries.

BLACK ENTERPRISE: How much money did the EAC receive for the states to fund reform? How much for EAC operation?

DeForest Soaries Jr.: The total appropriation for states was about $3 billion. The problem was that Congress did not give us enough operating money to move as quickly as we should have. The president told Congress we needed $10 million to operate. Congress only approved $1.2 million.

BE: What has the EAC done?

Soaries: We distributed the $3 billion. We read the states’ plans for using the funding, and we helped elections officials prepare for the November election by assisting them with the changes they needed to make to comply with HAVA.

BE: Do you think the 2004 presidential election was won genuinely?

Soaries: The election was fair. It was the most monitored election in history, but it was not flawless. There were machine malfunctions and poll worker problems. However, this was the first election in our history where data was collected that reports how many people voted. This allows us to investigate discrepancies.

BE: Will Congress change the amount of power states have over federal elections?

Soaries: We don’t have one federal election process but rather an assemblage of election processes that differ by state. Where we are now, states can do exactly what they please. Jessie [Jackson] is arguing that states should not have the right to make certain decisions about voting in federal elections. They’re pushing Congress to say that the federal government is taking over voting in federal elections.

BE: Do you think states have too much power?

Soaries: Well, look at Georgia. In the year 2000, Georgia lost more votes than the state of Florida. In some black neighborhoods, up to 10% of the votes were lost. Then the secretary of state of Georgia decided that every citizen would vote on the same machine. So they bought 24,000 machines and now their spoilage rate is down to less than about .08%.

The president and the Congress did not make that decision. That was a Georgia decision. So while the focus is on the White House and Washington, the issue of election reform should be raised by every state in the country, because, ultimately, the power is in the states.

BE: What do you think the main focus of the new chair should be?

Soaries: Those of us who use microwaves depend on the government to assure us that there are standards in place to protect us from harmful effects. What happened in this country is that we went to computerized voting without those