Must Read Jessica Huseman on HR 1

Jessica Huseman is one of the journalists who has covered election administration issues in great depth over recent years. Although she supports much of HR 1 in principle, she has published a blistering critique which argues that the bill would throw election administration into “chaos.” For this post, I didn’t want to use the headline of her Daily Beast piece because it’s so provocative, but the headline is How This Voting Rights Bill Could Turn the Next Election Into a Clusterf*ck.

I know a fair amount about election administration, but I do not speak to election administrators nearly as much as Huseman. As a result, I can’t independently assess the accuracy of the claims made in her piece, but I take her work seriously. Here are some excerpts — you really have to read the full piece to get all the details:

While the tenets of the bill are laudable—its provisions on redistricting and campaign finance are badly needed—and would help America grapple with the very real problem of voter suppression, it was written with apparently no consultation with election administrators, and it shows. While the overall message is positive, it comes packed with deadlines and requirements election administrators cannot possibly meet without throwing their systems into chaos….

The sections of the bill related to voting systems—wholly separate from its provisions on voting rights—show remarkably little understanding of the problems the authors apply alarmingly prescriptive solutions to. Many of the changes the bill demands of election administrators are literally impossible to implement. Others would significantly raise the cost of elections but provide no assured long-term funding.

It empowers an agency—the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission—that was criticized less than a year ago for mismanagement and fecklessness by the same Democrats promoting this bill. And, perversely to its purpose, the bill would make elections less secure by forcing states to rush gargantuan changes on deeply unrealistic time frames. The fixes needed are many and are doable, so it’s unacceptable that the authors of the Senate bill bypassed the chance to improve it.

“I don’t know what they were thinking, honestly,” said the head of an elections nonprofit. “It’s a bad bill. The goals might be admirable, but it’s a fucking bad bill.” Election administrators used the F-word a lot during my chats with them, frustrated because they’ve eagerly sought federal funding and basic attention to their offices, only to be handed impossible goals they’ll be held individually responsible for meeting. This person isn’t the only one who declined to be named when I asked more than 15 election administrators—a mix of federal, state, and local officials—to comment on the bill. It’s easy to understand why they blanched at offering their candid opinions.

Most officials ardently agreed with the voting rights protections, and these administrators feel they may risk the bill’s chance of improving voting at all by speaking out against its more poorly conceived demands.

One example: The bill explicitly gives voters whose states and counties have not complied with the law the ability to sue their jurisdictions, leaving already-cash-strapped elections offices fearing that they’ll be slapped with expensive lawsuits for their failure to leap over goalposts set unrealistically high.

In addition, the bill requires states to purchase paper-backed voting machines that are compliant with the brand-new standards passed by the Election Assistance Commission only weeks ago. A laudable goal, and a necessary one. But the bill lays out conflicting deadlines for this requirement: by the start of 2022 in one section, and by the November general election in another section.

The larger problem, however, is that the machines the bill requires don’t even exist yet. The Election Assistance Commission’s testing labs say they need eight to 12 more months to develop and finalize their new process for certifying vote systems to the new standards. Certifying the equipment could begin only after that process is complete. Machines that are both paper-backed and certified to the new standards won’t be in heavy circulation until well into 2025. The bill was initially written prior to these guidelines passing, which offers little justification for refusing to update the bill to reasonable deadlines.

The bill also requires that states implement automatic voter registration (AVR) by 2023, a process by which a citizen who interacts with a department of motor vehicles or social services agency would also be instantly registered to vote. A commendable goal, but one that, again, takes far more time and far more resources than the bill affords. The process requires not only updating the voter registration system, but the systems of multiple other state and even federal agencies so that the agencies’ databases talk to each other.

The states that have effective AVR systems took years to implement them. When California and Illinois rushed the process, it led to errors like registering ineligible voters, eligible voters registered incorrectly, and security vulnerabilities. Illinois still has not fully complied with its law more than three years later. These categorical failures of rushed policy have bolstered the opposition to AVR by Republicans, who routinely point to those ineffective systems as a reason not to expand the practice. H.R. 1 asks us to make that same grave error in more states, potentially dooming AVR as a policy goal.

Similarly, the bill asks states to implement voter registration by “automated telephone-based system” —a wild, almost certainly nonsecure idea that no state currently uses and that election officials are baffled by. Currently, no voting vendor offers such a system, meaning that states would have to create this from scratch. The bill affords neither the time nor the means to implement this demand. Those responsible for drafting this provision say disability advocates requested it, but I cannot confirm this. I have yet to find a single disability organization involved in voter access saying they want or need a telephone voter registration option.

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