2004 Election Interview: The Rev. DeForest Soaries
Republican DeForest Soaries served as the first chair of the federal Election Assistance Commission, set up in the wake of the Florida fiasco of 2000 to oversee ongoing reform of American voting. The agency was constantly underfunded: “We really had to put together a federal agency with spit,” Soaries says, “when that agency was supposed to bring about reforms in voting for federal elections.”
The EAC was supposed to ensure that the billions in federal funds spent on new voting technology was spent wisely: “There are legitimate questions in circulation about the integrity of electronic voting,” he says, “and the reality is that no one really knows the answers. Because we don’t have enough research, and the research budget that was authorized by the Congress for the EAC to get to the bottom of these issues was completely zeroed out in the appropriations. The EAC itself was only authorized through last year. So what serious person would accept an appointment to a federal agency that’s no longer authorized?”
Soaries resigned a year ago in disgust, calling the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress uncommitted to improving America’s sorry election apparatus. This May, National Affairs Daily talked with Soaries, who is speaking out after a year of self-imposed silence.
ROLLING STONE: What led you to resign?
DeForest Soaries: It wasn’t until I worked in Washington on an issue as generic as this that I realized how pitiful and perhaps how hopeless Washington really is. For God’s sake…if any issue should be the catalyst for bipartisan cooperation, this is the issue: voting.
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.
RS: What explains that?
DS: My sense was that most of the elected officials in Washington —in their heart of hearts —really believe that the system can’t be too bad because it produced them. And when people in power can stay in power they do very little to tinker with the apparatus that put them in power. We’ve seen it time after time after time. We know that the Daly machine produced certain results predictably. We know that there are certain Republican districts that could elect a Republican cow if they ran’em. It’s not about Democrat or Republican, black or white. It’s about power.
RS: Were there any attempts to politicize the work of the EAC?
DS: 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. Alright? It only happened once. Early in my term.
RS: What’s the biggest problem with American elections?
DS: Voting in this country has essentially been relegated to a very fledging group of election officials, who receive no training and operate on shoestring budgets on one hand, and political consultants whose job is to get their candidates elected on the other. And when you have that kind of scenario, it’s really hard to describe yourself as a vibrant democracy. It’s an embarrassment.
RS: Were you troubled by the 2004 presidential election?
DS: Here’s what I found troubling. Look at Ohio. 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. And the problem is this is six years after Florida 2000! What number of votes is an acceptable number to lose in any race? We don’t have a performance rate for machines. If we discovered that of 10,000 Diebold machines model XYZ, 1,000 break down during the day, is that acceptable or unacceptable? If it were a toaster we could tell you, it were a tire we could tell you. If a certain tire malfunctions a certain number of times then they have a recall.
We have no basis for having a recall of any particular type of voting equipment because there are no standards. And when we do have standards, even these standards are required to be voluntary. So is a one percent error rate good? Is a two percent error rate good? 5,000 votes cast, only 4,000 counted? Is that success or failure?
So when you ask me about Ohio, you can recite to me the worst data that anyone has unearthed in Ohio, I would have to say to you —very technically —so what? What does it violate?
It may violate your sensibilities, it may violate my sensitivities, it may violate someone else’s sense of fair play. 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?