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S3E19 - It's happening.....it's finally happening! Tom Hicks with the EAC

The EAC's Commissioner Tom Hicks [right] with Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon [on Zoom]
The EAC's Commissioner Tom Hicks [right] with Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon [on Zoom]

The High Turnout Wide Margins team recently traveled to Portland, Oregon, for a special workshop on State Associations hosted by the Election Center. While there, we were able to have face-to-face conversations with people working in elections across the country.

In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Commissioner Tom Hicks, one of the longest serving members of the Election Assistance Commission, or EAC.

They spoke about Tom’s time as a commissioner, how elections can be more accessible for disabled voters, and how the EAC could play a role in developing the election administration workforce.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Associate Producer: Katie Quinn
Digital Producer: Mark Johnson

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Tom Hicks: There shouldn't be a us versus them sort of mentality for vendors and the folks in the disabled community. One, I feel, I also feel that, you know, not all disabilities are ones that you can see, and so, to be able to use any machine and have that machine count your vote accurately should be paramount.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]

Brianna Lennon: Welcome to a very special episode of High Turnout Wide Margins. My name is Brianna Lennon. I'm the County Clerk for Boone County, Missouri, and with me is my co-host–

Eric Fey: Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri.

Brianna Lennon: And today, we're really excited to have an extra special commissioner on the show. Do you want to introduce yourself?

Tom Hicks: Hello. Hi, I'm Tom Hicks. I'm a Commissioner with the United States Election Assistance Commission [EAC]. I want to thank you both because I've been to both your counties and seen the operations that have been run there, and I think it's really impressive and thank you for having me.

Brianna Lennon: I think, as you know, we like to always talk about our guests first. And so, can you dive a little bit into how you ended up working in elections and the path that took you to be a commissioner at the EAC?

Tom Hicks: Sure. I started working in elections – basically been working in elections since ‘88 in campaigns and so forth, but really got my love of it after the 2000 election where I decided that I never want to see an election run that way again, and so, [I] went to work for Common Cause, lobbied on what became the Help America Vote Act [HAVA] in 2002, became a hill staffer in 2003 working for the Committee on House administration, and then got nominated by President Obama in 2010 or 11? Now, it's, you know, running a really long time ago, or 2010, 2011, in 2013 – nominated by President Obama to fill this spot, and then finally confirmed after four and a half years serving and still working in the Committee on House administration and then been a commissioner ever since.

Eric Fey: So, Tom Hicks – longtime listener, first time caller. Thanks for being here. Are you the longest serving commissioner on EAC currently?

Tom Hicks: I believe, well, Christie McCormack and I started on the same day. So, we are co-owners of that longest serving Commissioner position at nine years, right now, nine years and running.

Eric Fey: You know, we've obviously talked about the EAC quite a bit on this podcast – different folks who are former commissioners and like Roy Blunt, for instance, who was a congressman who had a big hand in HAVA, for instance. But from your experience now being a commissioner – you and Christie being the two longest – how would you describe the evolution of the EAC since your appointment?

Tom Hicks: Well, I would go into the points of when I first got to the commission there was a whole lot of hatred of it, and a thought of it should be eliminated, it's already fulfilled its duties, and I think that the three of us at the time – Matt Masterson, Christie McCormick and myself – worked really hard to crush that thought that the agency has outlived its usefulness.

I think the current commissioners – Don Palmer and Ben Hovland and myself and Christy McCormack – work really hard to fly around the country, meet with people, show the value of our agency and the resources that we have.

Before, you know, 2018 there were only about 20 employees at the agency and that's really hard to be able to work as a federal agency and keep the lights on and actually have backup on issues that occurred.

Our former General Counsel had an issue where he had to go to a funeral, and we didn't have backup to to basically fulfill our role with the legal part of it, and so, now we have, you know, a few folks in our General Counsel's Office, we have a number of subject matter experts who are former election officials themselves, we have a number of people in our IG’s office, and we function as a real federal agency. And I think mostly – not only giving advice – but also giving real products to people. So, not only functioning where we help the administration of elections and helping with folks who are administering elections, but also working with American voters, whether they be Democrats or Republicans – we don't care who wins, we just want to make sure that if you are eligible to vote, that you can cast your vote and have that vote counted accurately.

And I will say that, and I don't know if other folks who've been on the show have covered this, but our commitment to those folks who have disabilities. To the point where our new logo, actually, if you look at the logo itself, you'll see dots there – it looks like they're just computer dots, but it actually spells out “Vote” in Braille, and I think that that shows a commitment to the disabled community, who for the first time with the Help America Vote Act can vote independently and privately, or I should say it was actually spelled out in the law so that they can vote independently and privately.

So, I think that the evolution of the agency over the last 20 years has gone from one of just giving out money for voting machines and other aspects to actually servicing, to help with the administration of elections or helping states with the administration of elections. We don't actually conduct any elections ourselves, but I think that we show a real commitment, not only to folks on the mainland, but also the, you know, territories and DC, as well.

Brianna Lennon: So, your personal path to the Commission involved both advocacy work, but then also legislative work, and that's probably not atypical for somebody that's working in Washington, but it's atypical for somebody, I think, that ends up in an elections administration area. How have you, how has it kind of changed your view of elections administration as you've moved from advocacy through basically like writing, helping write the rules at the legislative level to now being more of an admin role? Well,

Tom Hicks: Well, I would say that, you know, writing it so that someone can, you know, I've never voted on it. So, the members of Congress are the ones – and the President – who signed those. When we looked at the Help America Vote Act, it passed with overwhelming support – 435 members voted for it and 92 members of the Senate voted for it. So, it's a huge bipartisan bill, and back then, I think that the fact is that you cannot have any legislation where it would be, where one side would get some sort of advantage over the other.

So, Steny Hoyer [U.S. representative for Maryland's 5th congressional district] talks about this all the time – of how he worked with Bob Ney [former U.S. Representative for Ohio's 18th congressional district], at the time, to say, you, “There are some things that I'm going to have to swallow and there's some things that you're going to have to deal with, as well, to get this legislation through.” And it's not to advantage one party over another, it was one that worked towards making sure that those who were eligible to vote could cast their votes and have those votes counted accurately, for instance, allowing for a provisional ballot to be put into place. So, that if you are standing in line at the close of the election, as long as you were there at 6:59, and, you know, before seven o'clock – if that's the time that it would be for the closing of the polls – then you would be able to cast your vote. So, as long as you are in line before that time, then you can cast your vote.

And then the statewide voter list being put into place, so that, to ensure that people who are eligible can have their names on those lists, as well.

So, I think that, you know, I am unique in that being able to see the legislation from, you know, the conception piece to seeing it implemented as a hill staffer, and then to actually administrated as a commissioner, I think is a unique position and one that I value immensely, and you know, I've always had a love of public service, and so, with my near 30 years of being in the United States, you know, government – I think that there's, you know, some things I would, I want to accomplish before, you know, my time is done, but I think that there are still things that that need to be done.

Brianna Lennon: So, one of the, one of the areas that accessibility comes up with a lot is about voting equipment and the EAC has played a role in creating standards and working with vendors on different parts of security, especially, but also on accessibility, and I was hoping you could touch on some of that I – for lack of a better word, I guess – tension in trying to make sure that we are still serving all of our voters well. Using equipment that has good security, and also is auditable, and hits all of the points that everybody else wants it to hit with paper ballots and things like that? Well,

Tom Hicks: Well, one thing that I would constantly say is that if we live long enough, we will all have some form of disability, and so, my ultimate dream is to see that there's not two machines in a polling place – one for those who are disabled, and then one for those who are not. I think that now that we have the 2.0 Voluntary Voting System Guidelines, that companies can build towards incorporating a number of the added features from those guidelines into a machine to be tested, and I believe that there shouldn't be a us versus them sort of mentality for vendors and the folks in the disabled community. One, I feel, I also feel that, you know, not all disabilities are ones that you can see, and so, to be able to use any machine and have that machine count your vote accurately, should be, you know, paramount. But I think that there are a number of things that can be used for those who have disabilities that can be used by, you know, anyone else. For instance, a machine that can enlarge the print. So, if I forget my glasses, then I can, you know, still see who I'm voting for, and I think that, you know, there shouldn't be a us versus them mentality that it should be, you know, universal sort of thing. And, you know, for instance, with the phones that people use today – it's not one that, you know, folks can use a phone that, you know, these are phones for those who have disabilities. It's these features can be used by anyone, you know, Siri, for instance, or whatever it is for the Android phones, that you know, with AI and so forth, those things can be used to help aid and get some information out to those who have disabilities that might not necessarily be used for folks who don't have disabilities.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Mid-break]

Eric Fey: Tom, one of the things that I think the EAC does particularly well is disperse federal funds – that's obviously part of your mandate, but one thing that I have often lamented, publicly and privately, is that that money, generally speaking, goes to the states, and there's not an explicit mandate that locals get some kind of percentage or, you know, whatever the case may be. But what the EAC has done, in the recent past, is form a new advisory board – The Local Leadership Council – that takes into account local election administrators in every state, and I think territory, as well, of the United States. So, can you talk a little bit about why the commissioners decided to form that board and what role it's playing now for the EAC?

Tom Hicks: Right? Well, it is just for the states, there's no persons from the territories, yet, on that. The Local Leadership Council, I think, is phenomenal in providing information to us because we have the Standards Board, but that was mostly state folks being able to give us information, but we are hearing from locals directly, and I think that that has been really great in terms of being able to do surveys and being able to get these folks into, you know, meetings to tell us what actually affects them.

And you are right, one of – the number one complaint that we have from the locals is that they do not see those funds. I would advocate for them to talk to their local member of Congress to see what can be done. This current year, we received $55 million from the federal government, from the Congress to disperse to the states, and, you know, per the calculation, you know, because of the big four – California, Texas, New York and Florida – they get a little bit more than the $1 million [allotment], but overall, it just works out to be about $1 million per jurisdiction, and I think that, you know, where no one's ever said, “Hey, you know, don't give us additional funds,” but I think that as Congress moves forward, to look at, you know, the replacement of voting equipment, to look at the other aspects that will be costing additional funds – because elections are not the same as they were in 2000, you know, for instance, we have e-poll books – the EAC is looking at, you know, Election Night reporting, and other aspects, as well, and I think that those things will cost additional funds. And I think the Congress has done a good job in terms of saying to the states, “Hey, you know, we're gonna give you money, but you still have to have some sort of skin in the game by having some sort of match to that.” But I think that, you know, it should be something that's debated and talked about – of whether or not can you give more money directly to the locals for that, for the administration of elections?

Brianna Lennon: Do you think that the way that our current decentralized infrastructure elections model works? Because you're seeing it from the very, very top all the way down, which is a unique perspective that a lot of us don't have, and I'm sure you've also talked to people in other countries that have a much more centralized way of doing things, and I think sometimes people assume the EAC acts like that for the United States, but it doesn't. Do you, do you think that it works? Are there things that if you had a magic wand, that you would fix?

Tom Hicks: Well, I think that for election management bodies there are some things that could be looked at, but I think that, for instance, what might work in Oregon – election wise – is not going to work the same for Georgia or Massachusetts. But for federal elections, and particularly those aspects for our men and women overseas – for instance, I've heard from various soldiers saying, “Why can someone register to vote 30 days out, and I can't register, you know, I have to register at a different time.”

Or I think that, you know, with things like theMOVE Act [Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment], by allowing for ballots to be sent out 45 days ahead of time that alleviate some of those aspects, but there are probably some aspects for federal elections that could be looked at, and I think that the Help America Vote Act did some of that with provisional balloting or allowing for folks to have a statewide voter registration list. It still allowed for flexibility within the states, but there are some uniform rules that are in place, and I think that the carrot and stick approach also worked pretty well in terms of, “We're going to give you this money, but you have to do things this way,” and I think that that has improved the elections process, so that we don't have the same sort of issues that we had in 2000, but, you know, there's not been one election it's been 100% foolproof, in terms of there's always going to be some mistakes that are happening, just like you're not going to have a road where, you're not going to have a an accident happened. That doesn't mean that we ban cars or that we totally do X, Y and Z, it just means that there needs to be improvements made moving down the line, and I think that as we have elections in ‘24, and ‘26 and ’28, federally, that there will be things that we should look at and things that we should look at improving.

Eric Fey: So, I want to ask you about the workforce in election administration. We recently interviewed Derek Bowens from North Carolina, and I mentioned to him that it's very obvious when you start going to election administration conferences, they're overwhelmingly white faces in those conferences. I know it's something you've mentioned to me in the past that you've noticed. Do you – with your unique perspective of visiting almost every state in this country – do you see that changing at all? Or if not, do you have any thoughts on how that could change in the future?

Tom Hicks: I have, that's really a good question, and I think that yes, this is true in that, for the most part, those who are administering elections are white, 55-year-old women, but I think that there are programs that are being put in place to help with the administration of elections in terms of like – with Auburn University, having their graduate program – and I wonder about, you know, growing up, no one says, “Hey, I want to be an election administrator.” So, I think that as we've moved forward, and it's a tough job, and as I said earlier, it's not one that, for the most part, pays particularly well. So, how do we get people more involved in this? And I think that, you know, maybe serving as a poll worker to get that initial taste of it, but also, how does one get involved in it? And I think that each particular state is a little bit different, but I think that the national conferences that people can go to with the Election Center or iGO [International Association of Government Officials] or other aspects – that they can see, you know, how to become an election administrator, but I do think that there should be some sort of way to get more people involved, and I think that if it's not demonized, then people can, you know, think about joining.

For instance, you know, growing up people talk about, “Oh, I want to be a firefighter” or “I want to be a teacher” or “I want to be a police officer,” and they have those aspects of, “Well, how do you do that?” I don't think that that exists for election administrators. Just to see how folks can actually become that, but I would like to see it change – in terms of, you know, this is a very diverse country and to have other people involved in it would be, you know, I think, a strength as opposed to a weakness.

Because, again, I think of it as it's not that we – as folks who are election administrators are picking the winners and losers – they're basically doing the balls and strikes, and this is how it's run, sort of thing. So, the behind the scenes of counting ballots, and so forth, but not necessarily influencing that.

Brianna Lennon: Well, I guess piggybacking off the workforce development type question, we talked a little bit about the local leadership council, the LLC – is the EAC interested or planning to take any kind of role in, like, the actual workforce development side of elections administration? To try to, you know, they recruit people to create a national poll worker day, recruiting people to do that, maybe taking the next step of saying, “Let's figure out how to get the next generation of elections administrators in these roles.”

Tom Hicks: I hope so. There's – and I'm gonna get this wrong – but to have an academy of classes or so forth for folks to take, but also what we've done in the last year is set up a space where election administrators can talk to each other, and we've run that pilot through the Local Leadership Council and through our other FACA [Federal Advisory Committee Act] boards, to say, “Hey, here's a space for you to come in, and if there's an issue that you have, then you can talk to other administrators about those issues, and then come up with solutions to it.” But I do think that if we could work towards – and it all depends on budgets, you know. When I first got to the EAC, we had a budget of just over $10 million, and that was just enough, basically to keep the lights on, but as we've increased our, as Congress has increased our budget, we've been able to do more in terms of providing resources to election officials, and I think that if we continually get resources, then we can provide more aspects of it and doing some of the things that you just asked about.

Eric Fey: Tom, is there anything that we missed that you wanted to make sure it's highlighted?

Tom Hicks: No, I think that – well, I want to say that, you know, since 2002, the EAC has been growing, and we had our growing pains through some of those years. I think that a number – we haven't, we've had a number of Commissioners come and go, but I think that, as we've moved forward, the agency has grown and evolved, and I think that we’ll evolve as the elections change. So, if there – one thing that I would constantly say is that if there are issues that we should be tackling that people can reach out to us at our Clearinghouse function, to say, “Hey, why aren't you looking at this? Why aren't you looking at that?” And we will, as a collective, look at that, and see if that's something we can look at. So, you know, as you know, we're not a monolith, but I think of it as we will change over time and continue to function because elections are going to continue to happen.

Brianna Lennon: You've been listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local elections administration. I'm your host, Brianna Lennon alongside Eric Fey. A big thanks to KBIA and the Election Center for making this podcast possible. Our Managing Editor is Rebecca Smith. Managing Producer is Aaron Hay. Our Associate Producer is Katie Quinn, and our Digital Producer is Mark Johnson. This has been High Turnout Wide Margins. Thanks for listening.

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After serving as Assistant Attorney General in the Missouri attorney general's office and as Deputy Director of Elections in the Missouri secretary of state's office, Brianna Lennon made the decision to pursue election administration at the local level. She was elected county clerk in Boone, Missouri, in 2018, making her responsible for conducting elections for more than 120,000 registered voters.
Eric Fey is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, who fell in love with election administration as a teenage poll worker. He has worked in the field for a decade, and became director of elections in 2015. He’s on the executive board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, and has observed elections in twelve countries, including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.