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Professor Dan Tokaji
Election reform, the Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act, and related topics -- with special attention to the voting rights of people of color, non-English proficient citizens, and people with disabilities

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Equal Vote
Thursday, June 8
Soaries Speaks -- And Boy Does He Ever!
The former chairman of the Election Assistance Commission ("EAC"), DeForest "Buster" Soaries, sat down for this interview with Rolling Stone magazine. The interview is eye-opening, and one might even say eye-popping, in what it reveals about how election reform is going, at least from the perspective of one of those charged with overseeing it.

In a nutshell, the answer is: not very well. Soaries -- who by the way is a Republican -- is blunt in his criticism of Congress and the White House for their lack of commitment to the improvement of election administration. Here are some highlights:

-On his time with the EAC, Soaries says: "It was probably the worst experience of my life. I found that there is very little interest in Washington for true election reform. That neither the White House nor either house of the Congress seems to be as committed to guaranteeing democratic participation in this country as we seem to be in other countries. It's an embarrassment that we don't have a broad enough consensus among political leaders that true reform should take place. I could count the members of Congress on one hand that took these issues seriously."

- When asked about whether there was any pressure from the White House seeking to politicize the EAC's work, Soaries replies: "The one time I got a call from the White House trying to invade this space, I pushed back, and they never called again. There were people in the White House who thought that because I was a Republican that I cared more than I did about Republican politics." He doesn't say what issue the White House called on.

- On the biggest problem with U.S. elections, Soaries describes a "very fledging group of election officials, who receive no training and operate on shoestring budgets" in one corner, and "political consultants whose job is to get their candidates elected" in the other. Not a recipe for success, according to Soaries, but rather one that results in an "embarrassment."

- When asked whether he was troubled by what happened in Ohio in 2004, Soaries replied: "Is a two-hour line appropriate or inappropriate? We don't have an answer to that question. What we say is that democracy means that you have the right to vote without intimidation and undue burdens. But if you stand in line for six hours, technically, today there is no document, no standard, no law that says that that's wrong." He continues, alluding to Ken Blackwell: "But the Secretary of State of Ohio has proven that you can get straight through an election by saying: We broke no law. You see the problem?" If I understand him correctly, Soaries' point is that existing election laws -- and least at the federal level -- don't do enough to stop voters from being subjected to considerable burdens, even ones that may have the effect of preventing them from voting entirely. Thus, election officials can plausibly claim not to be violating any law, even when the system operates in such a way as to impede access to eligible voters.

So what does he think the solution is? On this point, I take the Soaries interview to be less than clear. It is nevertheless very much worth reading and, to the extent one believes his account of the current state of election reform to be accurate, very dispiriting.

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