Federal Panel on Voter Fraud Scrutinized

The Election Assistance Commission, a small group with the responsibility of finding good voting technologies and distributing federal funds, is being examined by congressional committees. It drew Democratic complaints when it reported that the amount of vote fraud is unclear. Democrats point to the commission consultant's report, which says there is little fraud. It's an issue that splits along the Democratic/Republican divide.

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After the 2000 presidential election, Congress set up a commission to help fix the nation's voting problems.

Now, that commission has its own problems after it released a controversial report on voter fraud. Some Democrats and activist groups think the report's findings were changed because of political pressure from the Bush administration. The bipartisan panel strongly denies the allegations but Congress is investigating and a House hearing is scheduled for this week.

NPR's Pam Fessler has the story.

PAM FESSLER: The Election Assistance Commission, or EAC, was byproduct of the tumultuous 2000 elections. Congress created the agency to give states money for new voting machines and to come up with some national voting standards. For the most part, the commission's two Republican and two Democratic members have worked in relative obscurity.

Unidentified Man: …had the recommendation by Steph…

FESSLER: In fact, when the commission adopted its voter fraud report in December, few people even noticed. Although there was one woman in the audience who sat frowning and shaking her head.

Unidentified Man: So is there a motion to adopt the election crimes report presented by a general council as…

FESSLER: The woman was Tova Wang of the Century Foundation, one of two consultants hired by the panel to help repair the fraud report. She recently recalled why she was so upset.

Ms. TOVA WANG (Democracy Fellow, Century Foundation): After we submitted our draft report in July, no one would speak for me again.

FESSLER: Wang says she tried repeatedly to work with commission staff to shape the final report. But instead, she says the EAC really something substantially different from what she and the other consultant, Republican Election attorney Job Serebrov, had submitted.

Ms. WANG: We found that the instances of voter impersonation at the polls, pulling place fraud is pretty overstated and what the commission released made it appear as though this was the subject of great difference, whereas we found not unanimity, but pretty close. At that point, (unintelligible) fraud is not the big problem.

FESSLER: And that's a hot political topic. Republicans think voter fraud is a serious problem that Democrats ignore. And Democrats think Republicans exaggerate the issue to help pass things such as voter I.D. laws to suppress the Democratic vote.

News of the EAC's revision also came at the same time as revelations that the Justice Department targeted U.S. attorneys for not going after voter fraud cases. Commission members deny any of this was a factor for them.

Ms. DONETTA DAVIDSON (Chairwoman, U.S. Election Assistance Commission): There wasn't any political pressure, number one.

FESSLER: Commission chair Donetta Davidson, a Republican, says the EAC concluded that there's quote, "a great deal of debate," unquote, over the extent of voter fraud because that's what commissioners believe the research showed. She says the consultants based their conclusions on interviews with two dozen experts, not actual data.

Ms. DAVIDSON: We had to make the determination in the saying, is that enough information? How much more information do we need before we can say what is voter fraud? You know, on voter intimidation, how much is really out there? There's never been that type of a study. We had no documentation to go by.

FESSLER: She says the report was never intended to be more than a first stab at a difficult topic. But stoned by the criticism of activists and Democratic lawmakers, the EAC has asked the inspector general to investigate. It's also released 40,000 pages of internal documents demanded by Congress. And the documents do show there was some political pressure. Whether or not it had any impact.

In an e-mail last October, consultant Serebrov told the commission staffer that quote, "Tova and I worked hard to produce a correct, accurate and truthful report. I could care less if the results are not what the more conservative members of my party wanted."

In another 2005 e-mail, Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Attorney Hans von Spakovsky complained to the commission about Tova Wang. He cited what he called a pronounced partisan and one-sided view of voter fraud issues. And asked that the contract be reconsidered.

Von Spakovsky was on the EAC advisory board at the time and often weighed in on controversial issues. Paul DeGregorio, a Republican commissioner until this year, says he didn't always appreciate the pressure from the DOJ official.

Mr. PAUL DeGREGORIO (Former Chairman, U.S. Election Assistance Commission): I disagreed with his analysis on several issues. And I know that he didn't like it. But again, I felt that I was very independent and that a commissioner should be very independent of any type of political pressure and just make what I would consider the right decision.

FESSLER: And he feels strongly that's what happened with the fraud report. So, too, does Gracia Hillman, a Democrat on the commission.

Ms. GRACIA HILLMAN (Democratic Commissioner, U.S. Election Assistance Commission): And I guess the way I say it is that if there's a DOJ bogeyman out there, he's not in the EAC closet.

FESSLER: She blames much of the controversy on an overworked, understaffed agency trying to manage difficult research. The EAC has only about two dozen employees including the commissioners. Besides overseeing $3 billion in grants, the agency is also trying to set up a new system to test the accuracy of the nation's voting machines - no easy task.

Ms. HILLMAN: Yes, I think, at that time, we certainly had bitten off more than we could chew.

FESSLER: Hillman thinks in hindsight, she should have paid more attention to the exact wording of the report.

Wendy Weiser, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, says the EAC has left itself open to so much criticism because it operates in such an adhoc way.

Ms. WENDY WEISER (Deputy Director, Brennan Center for Justice, New York University): The commission has no procedures, for example, for when it's going to issue a report, for how it's going to vote on its own positions, and it does all of this in secret behind closed doors.

FESSLER: For example, the panel refused to release the consultant's draft report until it was pressured to do so by Congress. And it never had a public debate on the consultant's findings. Commissioners say, if they've learned anything, it's that they need to be more open with the public about how they make decisions.

Chair Donetta Davidson says the panel also needs to recognize its limits. She says one option might be to collect information on such controversial topics as voter fraud without drawing conclusions for the public.

Ms. DAVIDSON: I think we need to really look at it and say, do we just give them the facts and they make their own determination, because we are an assistance commission. And maybe that's our job.

FESSLER: She says the panel has a lot of other important work to do as the 2008 elections approach. Things such as providing guidance on poll worker training and ballot design, and making sure voting machines work. So there's no repeat of the 2000 disaster.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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