Amid national outrage over possible foreign interference in the 2016 election and President Donald Trump's own lies about so-called voter fraud, House Republicans on Tuesday quietly advanced two bills that "could profoundly impact the way we administer and finance national elections," watchdogs are warning.
The GOP-dominated Committee on House Administration voted along party lines to approve the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) Termination Act (HR 634), which would abolish the only "federal agency charged with upgrading our voting systems" and "helping to protect our elections from hacking," as Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at NYU School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice, put it.
During the same session, the committee also reportedly voted to abolish public financing for presidential elections, passing the Eliminating the Presidential Election Campaign Fund Act (HR 133).
According to a tweet by USA Today reporter Fredreka Schouten:
“House Admin. panel also says goodbye to public funding for prez candidates. Comstock: It has 'died of its own lack of use’”
Tuesday's votes were seen by advocacy groups a direct attack on democracy. Ahead of the hearing, the Brennan Center and a separate coalition of 38 pro-democracy groups sent letters urging members to oppose both measures.
"At stake is the survival of the public financing system for presidential elections and a commission that plays a vitally important role in standardizing and modernizing election administration," wrote (pdf) the coalition, which includes Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, NAACP, U.S. PIRG, and Public Citizen, among many others.
The Brennan Center letter, signed by Weiser as well as the center's director and counsel Nicole Austin-Hillery, cites the "impending crisis" in voting technology, identified by a bipartisan commission in 2014 and outlined in a subsequent Brennan Center report, and warns that the EAC is "the only federal agency which has as its central mission" the improvement of elections.
"Among that report's key findings were that the vast majority of voting machines in use today are either perilously close to or exceed their expected lifespans; that policymakers have not been responsive to election officials' calls for new equipment; and that more problems may arise the longer we delay purchasing new equipment. Those problems include increased machine failures, and security and reliability flaws. When these vulnerabilities are coupled with credible reports that Russian cybercriminals already attempted to access state voter registration systems, insecure voting machines can place our democracy at serious risk, at the very least of a loss of public faith in our elections."
Further, Weiser and Austin-Hillery describe the now-threatened presidential public financing system as "one of the few remaining tools to increase the voice of everyday Americans vis-à-vis the rising tide of special interest money that has flooded the political system since the Supreme Court's controversial decision in Citizens United."
While acknowledging that the current financing system is out of date, the coalition similarly warned, "Now is the time to upgrade our presidential public financing system to empower small donors. Eliminating the presidential public financing system will ensure that the presidency is in the hands of the nation's wealthiest individuals and special interest groups."
Reporting on the vote, The Nation's Ari Berman on Tuesday observed, "It's particularly ironic that the Trump administration is preparing to launch a massive investigation into nonexistent voter fraud based on the lie that millions voted illegally while House Republicans are shutting down the agency that is supposed to make sure America's elections are secure. It's more proof of how the GOP's real agenda is to make it harder to vote."