WASHINGTON – Members of a new federal voting commission appealed to Congress Wednesday to double their budget, arguing that the extra cash would allow them to help states run more efficient elections.
"We've promulgated no rules. We've worked hard to get stationery, office space, business cards. We've had one public hearing," DeForest B. Soaries, chairman of the Election Assistance Commission (search), told a House Appropriations subcommittee.
President Bush's budget proposal gives the fledgling commission $10 million for operations in fiscal 2005. Soaries asked lawmakers for an additional $10 million for research and data collection so the commission could provide states with guidelines on voting systems in time for the 2006 elections.
"Those standards cannot be established without proper research," said Soaries, who noted that the extra money could come from $40 million in Bush's fiscal 2005 budget request for states to spend on election reforms.
Several Republicans and Democrats were receptive to the proposal.
"Research and development I think needs to happen ... but you have to have the resources to do that. It's certainly not in the budget," said Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kansas.
The four-member, bipartisan Election Assistance Commission was created by the 2002 Help America Vote Act (search) passed after the disputed 2000 election in Florida. The act was intended to make voting easier and more secure by helping states update equipment and replace punchcard and lever machines, among other measures.
The Election Assistance Commission was designated to give federal money to states, and advise states and localities on technology, election standards and other steps to improve voting integrity.
But the commission got off to a slow start. Slated to be in place by February 2003, commissioners weren't appointed until last December. The commission was given a $10 million budget in fiscal 2004 — but only $1.2 million was appropriated. That left the panel struggling to rent office space — a cost the General Services Administration ultimately waived.
Still, the commission has achieved one of its goals. It is prepared to distribute $2.3 billion to states to buy new voting-booth equipment and make other improvements. The money should go out beginning this week, Soaries said. Commissioners had to wait 45 days after publishing state spending plans in the federal register, which happened in late March.
About $650 million already has been provided to states. The money is from $3.86 billion authorized in the Help America Vote Act.
Rep. John Olver, D-Mass., expressed surprise that the commission planned to distribute the money without having conducted research on voting system guidelines (search).
"We're going to distribute $2.3 billion to them now and we haven't done a bit of the research, none of the research, that would have helped them make the best possible decision?" Olver said.
"That's an accurate description," Soaries said.
"I don't know what else to say," Olver said.
"Welcome to our world," Soaries replied.