WASHINGTON -- As local officials gear up for a national election where razor-thin margins could tip the balance of power, the federal agency established after the Florida ballot disaster of 2000 to ensure that every vote gets counted is leaderless and adrift.
There are supposed to be four commissioners on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), but right now there are none.
The last executive director resigned in November, and the commissioners must vote to appoint a new one.
President Barack Obama nominated two new Democratic commissioners last year, but congressional Republicans are trying to defund the agency entirely -- which means for now no Republican nominations and no confirmation of the Democrats' candidates.
"If it is still as toothless by November 6 as it is today, I would have every expectation that things will fall through the cracks," said Estelle H. Rogers, legislative director at Project VOTE, a nonpartisan group that supports voting accessibility. Rogers said the EAC has provided important assistance to local officials with respect to registration forms, poll worker training and issue alerts.
"It is kind of disgraceful that we're headed into a major election and the only federal agency that's devoted to election administration has zero commissioners," said Lawrence Norden, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
The commission's staff continues to serve as a clearinghouse for information to the public and election officials, and tests and certifies voting machines, but is limited in what it can do going forward. Without commissioners, the EAC can't adopt new policies, issue formal advisory opinions or update regulations.
Norden said he worries that there are no federal standards for the next generation of voting machines. "We're still working off a standard that was developed in 2005," he said.
Norden also criticized Republican attempts to get rid of the agency, saying that with more than 5,000 election jurisdictions, it's important to have a federal clearinghouse for voting system problems.
Opponents of the EAC act as if the Florida ballot-counting problems were ancient history, said Norden. "But it's like yesterday that we decided we needed this agency because of all these problems. It's amazing to me."
Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) has led the campaign against the EAC, decrying what he calls the agency's "bloated budget, ever-growing staff, shrinking responsibilities," among other complaints.
The GOP has invested heavily this year in new voter identification laws and purges of voter rolls. Critics see its opposition to the EAC as another aspect of a push to restrict voting.
After all, shuttering the commission is hardly a top budget priority. It's slated to get $14 million in federal money next year -- a relatively insignificant chunk of the budget. The EAC actually received $11.5 million this year, and is expected to receive the same amount next year, despite the official budget.
EAC spokesman Bryan Whitener told The Huffington Post that the commission is still carrying out the policies established earlier by the commissioners. "We have our statutory obligations and responsibilities, and we're working to serve our mission," he said. "If this were in the very beginning, when we had no established policies or procedures, that would be a very different matter. But we've done quite a bit of work."
Whitener cited a roundtable webcast in June in which election officials could discuss best practices and issues related to the upcoming election.
Whitener wouldn't say how the agency itself feels about lacking leaders. "Any questions regarding commissioners, that's a question for the president and the Congress," he said, also declining to respond to the GOP charges that the EAC should be shut down. "Perhaps that's a question you'd want to ask commissioners."
Ion Sancho, the elections supervisor for Leon County, Fla., said the EAC shouldn't be eliminated -- it should be empowered. "The EAC in concept I think was very good, but in practice was a complete disaster," he said.
A four-person commission, with two members from each party, meant important questions resulted in gridlock, he said.
Regulating the largely unregulated voting machine industry is a particularly important area where the EAC needs to be active, Sancho argued.
There is so little federal role right now, he said, that malfunctions in one state are often not reported to other states with the same equipment. "I think we do need a national panel of this type, to take a tougher position on examining voting processes all over the country," he said.
CLARIFICIATION: Information has been added to indicate that the EAC actually received less money than the federal government budgeted for the agency.