Chairman of Voting Reform Panel Resigns
Saturday April 23, 2005 2:31 AM
By ERICA WERNER
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - The first chairman of a federal voting agency created after the 2000 election dispute is resigning, saying the government has not shown enough commitment to reform.
DeForest Soaries said in an interview Friday that his resignation would take effect next week.
Though Soaries, 53, said he wanted to spend more time with his family in New Jersey, he added that his decision was prompted in part by what he called a lack of support.
``All four of us had to work without staff, without offices, without resources. I don't think our sense of personal obligation has been matched by a corresponding sense of commitment to real reform from the federal government,'' he said.
Soaries, a Republican former New Jersey secretary of state, was the White House's pick to join the Election Assistance Commission, created by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to help states enact voting reforms.
A Baptist minister, Soaries was confirmed by the Senate in December 2003 and elected the independent agency's first chairman by his three fellow commissioners. His term as chairman ended in January 2005 and since then he has stayed on as a commission member.
Soaries and the other commissioners complained from the beginning that the group was underfunded and neglected by the lawmakers who created it.
``It's bad enough to be working under extremely adverse circumstances, but what throws your thinking into an abyss, as it were, is why you would be doing that when, for instance, you have to beg Congress for money as if the commission was your idea,'' Soaries said.
White House spokesman Allen Abney said only, ``We appreciate his service and we are working to fill the vacancy promptly.''
Envisioned as a clearinghouse for election information that would make recommendations about technology and other issues and distribute $2.3 billion to states for voting improvements, the commission initially couldn't afford its own office space. The commissioners were appointed nine months later than envisioned by the Help America Vote Act, and of a $10 million budget authorized for 2004, the panel received just $1.2 million.
Soaries said the commission could claim some credit for last November's relatively smooth election, including recommending ``best practices'' to voting administrators and getting the election reform money to states faster than it otherwise would have gone. The commission has sent about $1.8 billion to states so far.
But the commission has failed to preside over the kinds of sweeping reforms some hoped for, with many counties still relying in November on the same punch-card and lever machines derided after the 2000 election. Soaries said the commission is making progress with improvements, including technical guidelines and centralized voter registration lists, that are supposed to be in place for the 2006 election.
``There is so much more work to do to bring federal elections to the standard I think that the citizens expect, and there doesn't seem to be a corresponding sense of urgency among the policy-makers in Washington,'' Soaries said. ``Nor does there seem to be a national consensus among leaders of the states about what success looks like.''
Soaries said election reform was on the front burner after the 2000 presidential recount, but it moved to the back burner - and stayed there - after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat and a lead sponsor of the Help America Vote Act, said Soaries' resignation underscored a need to give the commission adequate resources.
``I hope this administration and Congress seriously consider Mr. Soaries' observations as we develop the fiscal year 2006 budget,'' Hoyer said.
The commission also has run into opposition from state officials accustomed to running their own elections and wary of federal involvement. Earlier this year, the National Association of Secretaries of State approved a resolution asking Congress to dissolve the Election Assistance Commission after 2006.
But Soaries said that despite his frustration and Congress' lack of engagement, he saw a lasting role for the Election Assistance Commission.
``Someone's got to wake up every morning with the mission of improving federal elections in a way that assures the voting public that they can have confidence in voting,'' he said.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/s ... 05,00.html