Election '18

Paul Ryan Shreds a Key Election Commission Because It Isn’t Right-Wing Enough

Republicans take another whack at undermining secure elections in 2018, after putting no money in the budget to improve aging machinery.

Photo Credit: www.speaker.gov/live

Top congressional Republicans really don’t want to safeguard or improve voting in America.

This week, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan revealed that he was not re-nominating Matthew Masterson, the current chairman of the four-member U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) who was known for taking non-partisan approaches and led the agency’s efforts to help states enhance cyber-security and anti-hacking protocols.

Ryan’s decision came a few weeks after both chambers of Congress passed a two-year federal budget that did not have any new funds for replacing the nation’s aging voting machinery, which is running on operating systems older than the first iPhones. (In contrast, House Democrats proposed legislation to spend $1 billion on upgrades.)

But Masterson’s apparent forced retirement has prompted a range of groans from an unusually broad spectrum of election lawyers, technology experts and top state officials. He was, by many accounts, a civil servant who put the public interest before political party, which, apparently, is not what Ryan and the Trump administration seek.

“All in all, this is terrible news if true,” wrote Rick Hasen, a University of California Irvine election law scholar and curator of the best-read election law blog, in response to Reuters’ scoop. “And it suggests he’s being canned because he’s not a party hack.”

“Masterson, a Republican appointee has been completely nonpartisan and professional, and willing to work across the aisle on issues (unlike the other Republican commissioner, Christy McCormick, who was a member of Trump’s now-disbanded sham election fraud commission),” Hasen noted. “His work with Democratic Commissioner Tom Hicks and others is a rare bright spot of bipartisan professional cooperation in an otherwise politicized field.”

The reactions to Ryan’s decision—he recommends the next EAC nominee; the White House then appoints that person—showed that Masterson was a Republican who put country before party. Democrats like Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, a National Association of Secretaries of States past president, was mortified. 

“The news that President Trump and Speaker of the House Ryan are choosing this moment to oust Matt Masterson from the Election Assistance Commission is frankly alarming, and gives lie to everything that the Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security have said about the importance of cybersecurity and protecting the sanctity of free and fair United States elections from foreign interference,” Merrill said in a statement. “Coming just weeks after the Ryan-led Republican House majority voted to eliminate the EAC, and just days after President Trump undercut his own intelligence agencies to again downplay Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, it is clear that Republican Congressional leadership and the Trump administration simply aren’t interested in ensuring that our elections are protected from Russian interference.”

“This is insanity,” Joseph Lorenzo Hall, an election security expert who is the chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told Politico. “Matt is extremely capable and has been a champion of more secure and better elections the entire time he's been on the EAC.”

The EAC is a little-known federal agency that has been in GOP crosshairs for years. The Help America Vote Act of 2004 created the EAC. Its purpose was to help disperse multimillion-dollar grants to the states for new voting machines, and to create voting system guidelines and technical standards.

In its early years, many Republican secretaries of states were very frustrated that the EAC would not readily approve upgrades to the largely paperless systems that the privatized voting machine industry pushed on states—but didn’t perform as advertised. For years, Republicans sought to defund or dismantle the agency. When Masterson, an ex-election official from Ohio, became EAC chairman 14 months ago, the House had just passed a bill to shut down the agency.

Under his chairmanship, the EAC went from being in survival mode to assisting states with better practices to improve cyber security and to adopt higher standards for auditing the results to verify the vote. That shift included a greater reliance on paper ballots—not entirely electronic systems, which are still used by one-fifth of the country.

Masterson’s departure means the four-member EAC will have two vacancies, with a much more partisan Republican representing the GOP. As the Sierra Club noted it its press release condemning Ryan’s decision, “Christy McCormick, the only other GOP member of the EAC, served on the highly controversial Pence-Kobach [election reform] commission and previously called the report on Russian interference in the U.S. election ‘deceptive propaganda.’”

But Masterson’s legacy was not just taking cyber security issues seriously. He also championed what’s called risk-limiting audits, which are a better way to ensure the accuracy of vote counts, and went to Colorado to observe its first statewide risk limiting audit and see what lessons were to be learned. He blogged about doing these kinds of vote checks in higher-stakes elections, like primaries, and mentioned other states, like Rhode Island, that were about to implement the practice.

That work will surely continue, but it won’t have the head of a federal election agency proactively championing it—at least not under the current regime in Washington.



Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).


Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018