In his first television interview since abruptly resigning his position as head of the Election Assistance Commission, Reverend DeForest Soaries tells Chris Matthews why he left the agency and the challenges he faced while working there, including the lack of budget.
During the interview, scheduled to air Friday at 7 p.m. ET, Soaries tells Matthews, "Election reform is not a matter of great urgency in Congress among Democrats or Republicans." The Election Assistance Commission was created by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 in the wake of the 2000 presidential elections.
Following are excerpts:
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, 'HARDBALL': Why did you quit the commission?
REVEREND SOARIES, FORMER HEAD OF ELECTION ASSISTANCE COMISSION: Well, in the first instance, my family needs. Having two 15-year-olds at home requires that I spend a lot of time commuting between Washington and New Jersey. I missed the opportunity to move my family to Washington because our confirmation by the Senate was delayed in 2003.
And so as a result, I had to work in Washington and New Jersey. But the larger issue was that I had to work with a $1.2 million budget. I mean, it’s hard to commute, but it’s harder to work with no money.
MATTHEWS: You didn’t get enough money to do the job at preventing more debacles like we had in Florida?
SOARIES: No, we were formed in 2003. We started in 2004. And we didn’t get a budget passed until December of 2004, which...
PR or a real priority?
MATTHEWS: Who was the one, who was ram roding this money through the Congress to get you guys enough money -- enough to do the job of cleaning up elections and avoiding mess-ups like we had in Florida?
SOARIES: Well, the Help America Vote Act was sponsored by congressmen Ney and Hoyer. And they were passionate about election reform, the bill passed in 2002. The commission was formed in ‘03. And they supported our efforts in a tremendous way.
But I have to say that election reform is not a matter of great urgency in Congress among Democrats or Republicans.
MATTHEWS: Is that PR by Congress that they didn’t deliver on or what?
SOARIES: Well, in one sense I think they were sincere, after the Carter-Ford Commission, in doing something to prevent another Florida. 2001 had September 11th, and I think all eyes shifted from election reform to terrorism. And by 2002, it just wasn’t on the radar anymore.
MATTHEWS: Did President Bush care about this program? Could you tell as an appointee, did he care about avoiding what happened? Well, he shouldn’t be too angry about what happened in Florida, he came out all right because of the Supreme Court involvement there.
SOARIES: But he didn’t like the process. I mean, he didn’t like the fact the Supreme Court had to be involved. He didn’t like the fact...
MATTHEWS: How do you know this?
SOARIES: Because I talked to the White House about their position on our work. Look, he signed the bill. The bill requires that provisional votes be in place so that if someone has a name purged from the list incorrectly, like they did in Florida, they still have the right to vote.
A million voters in November of 2004 had their votes counted because of the provisional ballot created by the Help America Vote Act. And so that’s a good thing.
On the 2004 elections
MATTHEWS: Let’s talk about the 2004 election. Where were the problems?
SOARIES: Problems in Ohio as it related to provisional ballots and long lines. The problems were, even prior to the election, millions of new voter registrations being delivered almost the day before the deadline and the elections officials have to scurry to get the names on the list in time for Election Day.
The problem, which is a recurring problem with elections being under funded on every level – they’re under funded on the state level. They’re under funded on the county level and the municipal level. And as a result, volunteers have to raise $2 million to run an election.
MATTHEWS: Could you have improved the way that Ohio handled its election if your operation had been up to speed?
SOARIES: Well, we actually did. Ohio had $45 million. We intervened when Ohio was dealing with the definition of provisional ballots. And frankly, Ohio listened to our guidance, and as a result, spared the country a tremendous lawsuit that could have been sued, had Ohio not changed the way they were going to handle provisional ballots.
MATTHEWS: Did we get an honest election count in 2004? Did the president really carry Ohio?
SOARIES: I think the Election Assistance Commission is beginning now to answer some of those questions. We’re still gathering data. We’ve never counted how many people vote in a presidential election.
MATTHEWS: Do you believe that Ohio truly went for the president, or it’s a doubtful question?
SOARIES: No, I think Ohio definitely went for the president. The problem is we don’t know how many people didn’t vote because of long lines. The problem is we just don’t know what we don’t know nationally.
On nationalizing elections
MATTHEWS: John Fund says that you want to nationalize elections, federalize them, is that true?
SOARIES: He knows that’s not true. The states run elections. But we do need a national consensus on how elections are run. We’re a more mobile country than we were in 1795. People move from state to state. And people have a right to know what the rules are before they to vote in an election.
MATTHEWS: If some state wants to go to some system that doesn’t really work, that has been described and we have learned it doesn’t work very well, should the federal government be able to say, “that system won’t work, you can’t use punch cards, you can’t use that sort of bout we had in Palm Beach,” that sort of thing?
SOARIES: Well, the federal government, through the EAC, has the right to say it. It just doesn’t have the right to stop it. And so it’s legal for states to use outmoded equipment, but it’s not logical.
MATTHEWS: Have you ever seen a case where an administration official of any level in the government has used inadequate voting machines to repress the vote. In other words, make the machines difficult to use, hard to read for a purpose, which is to depress a majority vote?
SOARIES: Well, the problem is repression implies motivation and that it was done intentionally.
MATTHEWS: That’s what I meant. I’m asking if you’ve ever seen a case of that.
SOARIES: I’ve never seen that. I’ve seen voter fraud that was intentional, just not systemic. I’ve seen different shenanigans that applied by politicians, but in the main, elected officials in this country are very honest people. They’re not trained. They depend on volunteers to run an election. They aren’t trying to steal elections. They’re trying to get through Election Day without making headlines.
MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you very much.
SOARIES: Thank you.
'Hardball with Chris Matthews' airs weeknights, 7 p.m. ET