WASHINGTON — DeForest Soaries had never heard of the Election Assistance Commission when the White House asked him to be its chairman. In the six months since, he has come close to quitting.
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Congress created the commission after the 2000 presidential election dispute to act as a clearinghouse for election information, make recommendations about technology and other issues and distribute $2.3 billion to states for new voting machines.
Yet, the commission couldn’t afford office space. Lawmakers and Bush administration officials who had clamored for reform were slow to return calls. Although electronic voting was dividing election officials nationwide, commissioners had no way of conducting research about its use. Getting support for changing haphazard voting systems proved difficult.
“These things make it very frustrating, because I know what’s going to happen,” Soaries said in a recent interview.
“When the media really starts getting on this issue, they’re going to start calling us and looking at us. ... I plan to let the world know that we’re doing our best with what we have, we’ve stated our case to Congress, and anything that does not happen in November, don’t blame it on us.”
Soaries decided to stay on the Election Assistance Commission, unwilling to make the task even harder for his colleagues by leaving. It may take all of his powers of persuasion to get the panel the money and influence it needs to change the states’ voting systems.
“I found him to be very creative and incredibly able to deliver a message,” said former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, who appointed Soaries as secretary of state during her second term. “He understands the importance of getting out the vote and enabling people in the minority communities that may be intimated by the voting process.”
A minister and a Republican
Soaries, 52, a Baptist minister and a Republican, was Whitman’s highest-ranking black appointee during her second term. In New Jersey, the secretary of state doesn’t oversee elections. Instead, Soaries advised Whitman on racial matters and other issues and oversaw a youth anti-violence plan and other programs.
Soaries started his career as a Democratic activist and organizer for Jesse Jackson. He became an independent and then a Republican after concluding that promoting economic empowerment and individual responsibility was more effective for the black community than blaming whites, the path he believed some black Democratic leaders were taking.
Whether he wears a dark business suit to address an elections conference or white robes to preach at First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in central New Jersey, Soaries connects with listeners.
“He has great vision. He’s just dynamic,” church member Phyllis Reddick said before a recent service at First Baptist, where Soaries preaches most Sundays. The church moved into a new building to accommodate a congregation that has more than tripled to 7,000 members under his leadership.
Soaries and the three other commissioners were appointed in December, nine months late. Of a $10 million budget authorized for 2004, the panel received just $1.2 million. Some lawmakers worry that a lack of money and time will prevent it from being effective.
“I have to confess to a lot of chagrin about what has happened,” Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., told commission members at an oversight hearing last week. “If your background work doesn’t get done right, and you don’t have the resources to do it, we’re throwing several billion dollars down the drain and we’ll come back to the same problems.”
Reforms are years from reality
Many of the reforms in the Help America Vote Act passed by Congress remain years from reality. Forty-one states have received two-year waivers of the 2004 deadline to create voter registration databases, and three-quarters of Americans will vote on the same machines in 2004 as they did in 2000. Punch card and lever systems vilified then are in wide use today.
There remains no accurate way to calculate a nationwide voter turnout figure because 10 states produce no such figure themselves, nor is there any way to know the error rate of a particular voting system.
With sweeping reform out of reach, Soaries has set modest goals for the November presidential election. For example, he has urged corporations to allow employees Election Day off to serve as poll workers.
If the commission’s funding improves, Soaries said, commissioners can implement their mandate in the years to come.
“If this were a foreign country with the exact same setup,” he said, “we’d be highly critical of their understanding of democracy.”
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