What a great time to be a member of the Election Assistance Commission

The Election Assistance Commission makes sure people have the help they need to vote.

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If the nation learned anything in the last couple of weeks, it’s that the process of voting is anything but simple. People overseas or people with disabilities can encounter logistics barriers to voting, the operations of elections. That’s where the Election Assistance Commission comes in. Its chairman has just become a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. Thomas Hicks joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin:  Let’s begin with the basics here, the Federal Election Assistance Commission, a small independent agency, just review for us what it does, because I don’t think it’s that well known even within the government.

Thomas Hicks: Well, that’s true. We’re a small but mighty agency. We came about, we just celebrated 20 years, on Oct. 29, of the enacting legislation, the Help America Vote Act. Our agency in a nutshell provides assistance to the states for the administration of elections. And we help voters with knowing what’s improving in the process overall, and helping people with learning how to become poll workers and other aspects as well. So from voter registration to voting, to actually counting the ballots, we give advice to the states. And the most important part that they say is that we’ve given out federal grants to these to the states for doing this.

Tom Temin: So the genesis lies in part then in the 2000 election where we had the famous hanging chads in Florida?

Thomas Hicks: Correct. And 357 members of the House and 92 members of the Senate voted for the bill, to ensure that the things that happened in Florida that were highlighted by Florida wouldn’t happen again. And I think our agency is doing a great job of ensuring that those things aren’t happening.

Tom Temin: And as we speak, there are still state’s elections for governor, it took days for the Senate races, and still the House races. And in an advanced technological society like we have, why does this still take so long to do something that seems like a simple calculation?

Thomas Hicks: Right. And so I would say that it’s functioning the way that it was intended to. So for instance, some of the states still allowed for ballots to come in. They had to be postmarked. But they had to be received by a certain date. And so those were still being counted. The other part of this is the results that we hear on election night are unofficial. And so we are going to wait for every ballot to be counted whether or not that’s provisional, overseas, or our military folks, and the ones that are done by mail that are received on time to be counted. And so it may take a little bit longer, but we want accuracy over hesitancy and speed.

Tom Temin: And you personally have a longtime interest in this correct?

Thomas Hicks: Correct. My parents used to bring me to the polling places in the late ’70s and early ’80s, to watch them vote. And then I became enamored with the process and after 2000 decided that I really wanted to be a part of this and helped with the actual writing of the legislation for the Help America Vote Act, worked on the Hill for over a decade, and the committee that oversaw the agency. And, and now I’m here and implementing and seeing the oversight of the Help America Vote Act through our agency.

Tom Temin: And as we are here now, in 2022, just on the dawn of 2023. Would you say that the original dream not so much of the law that gave rise to the Election Assistance Commission, but civil rights voting legislation passed decades before that has realized full participation for those that want to vote?

Thomas Hicks:  We still have some obstacles out there. The Help America Vote Act added a piece with allowing for those who have disabilities to vote independently and privately. But the EAC has done studies to say that things have improved, but they’re not great. And so we still want to strive to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote can cast their votes and have those votes counted accurately.

Tom Temin: And tell us about the card you developed for those with disabilities.

Thomas Hicks: The card that we have, I was looking for one on my body here, but I carry one with me wherever I go. Listeners won’t be able to see it, but I carry one wherever I go. It basically allows for those who have disabilities to know what their voting rights are, that they can bring anyone into a polling place to help them vote if they so choose, other than their boss or their union rep. They can ask for assistance, they have to be able to have an accessible voting piece of equipment to allow for them to vote independently and privately. And all of that is spelled out on this card.

Tom Temin: So for example, someone who is blind that can’t see the D or the R or the name or something or where the boxes can have assistance in actually doing the marking as long as that person can be construed as totally neutral and just there to help the person make their mark?

Thomas Hicks: Well, that person can be whoever they choose to do that, whether or not  they ask someone in the polling place to help them do so, or to bring someone with them. But I do want to point out that one of the aspects for being able to vote independently and privately is for them to be able to possibly put on headphones, and be able to guide them through that voting process without assistance overall.

Tom Temin: So there is technology out there that can in effect, talk to the person as a blind person hovers over different parts of the of the ballot?

Thomas Hicks: Yes, it’s similar to if anyone goes to any ATM machine, you’ll see that there is a jack there that allows for people to plug in a headset for ATM machines. And that’s the same for voting equipment that you can plug in a jack, put your headset on and it’ll guide you through that.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Thomas Hicks, chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, and now a new fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. And that is a good perch to pursue the kinds of things you have been pursuing for your career. What are your plans for NAPA? Do you have any assignments yet? Or I know you were just inducted a few days ago?

Thomas Hicks:  Well, I’ve looked at the overall committees that they have. And there are a few that I’m looking forward to joining. Whether or not that’s the government ones, or the ones that they are going to set up for voting overall. But I would love to be able to give them advice and guide them through to do this so that we can improve the process overall, any way that we can make voting better and improving it, I think is a positive aspect. And I want to thank NAPA for electing me into the new fellowship. And I look forward to the challenge.

Tom Temin: Looking at again, at the U.S. voting system. I mean, for a couple of centuries, people  around the world have looked to the United States for guidance and inspiration really on how to conduct government or to conduct elections. Do you feel that’s still the case? I mean, we’ve had some rough years, with respect to what happened in 2020. And people still even denying the results. And all of this, we had 2000, which was disputed and so on. Are we still the guiding light and still the gold standard? Do you think?

Thomas Hicks: I believe we are and I believe that every election that occurs, there’s going to be some sort of issue that happens. I equate it to the interstate highway system, no matter what we do, there’s still going to be accidents on the road. But what we need to do is to continually improve that process so we can minimize as many accidents as possible. And if we see those accidents, we correct them as quickly as possible. But I  do believe that the United States is still the gold standard for the elections around the world. And 2020 functioned well, it was one of the hardest elections that I’ve heard election administrators have to deal with. They  ran basically two elections, one for those folks who wanted to show up in person to make sure that they could do so safely and cast their ballots accurately. But also they convert it to a mail-in ballot. Even though that’s been done since the Civil War, they had been scaled up very quickly for these administrators to do. So they were running basically two elections in 2020. And so the other aspect that I would talk about is that people from around the world still come to the United States to observe our elections to see what things they can take back to their home countries. And so I noticed that this past election, there were folks here from Australia, and Sweden and other first world countries, as well. And even though they have democracies and function well with their elections, they wanted to see what else we they could learn from our system.

Tom Temin: It sounds as if the EAC itself has regular direct interaction with voting officials in other countries?

Thomas Hicks: Yes. So several countries have come over from Africa and Asia and Europe to talk to us. And we’ve been able to either talk to them in person in their home countries as well, or through the technology of zoom. It’s been really fascinating to be able to hear about their issues that they’ve occurred that have occurred, and giving them advice on how to improve the process from seeing what we do here in the United States.

Tom Temin: And by the way, the EAC itself has Democratically appointed and Republican appointed members. Do y’all get along with one another?

Thomas Hicks: We’re a family. So we fight, but we still get along. I would say that 95% of the stuff is non-partisan, and so forth. And it’s more about making sure like any family that the best things occur that we can work towards. And I think that as long as we can work towards a common goal, and that’s what our enacting legislation says of helping administrators with the administration of elections. We are doing that well. And I think that you know, we can we can always work towards a little bit better, but I think things are going pretty well.

Tom Temin: Thomas Hicks is the chairman of the Election Assistance Commission and a new fellow, the National Academy of Public Administration.

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