You'd be forgiven if you've never heard of the Federal Election Assistance Commission, the agency formed after Bush v Gore to help people register for federal elections. The reason you've probably never heard of it is because since 2010, the agency has been mutated by Republicans in Congress to the point of becoming an agency that in 2016 is now actively trying to unilaterally enforce a de facto national voter ID law that doesn't exist.
The election commission is in federal court this month, essentially accused of trying to suppress voter turnout in this November’s election. The Justice Department, its nominal legal counsel, has declined to defend it. Its case instead is being pleaded by one of the nation’s leading advocates of voting restrictions. The agency’s chairman has disavowed its actions.
The quarrel exemplifies how the mere act of voting has become enmeshed in volatile partisan politics. Seventeen states will impose new voting restrictions for November’s presidential election. Many are the object of disputes between those who say they are rooting out voter fraud and those who say the real goal is to keep Democratic-leaning voters from casting ballots.
The lawsuit’s origin is straightforward. The agency’s executive director, Brian D. Newby, had been in his job less than three months in January when he unilaterally reversed a policy that the body’s commissioners, two Democrats and two Republicans, had endorsed since the agency’s creation in 2002: that people registering to vote need offer no proof, beyond swearing an oath, that they are American citizens.
That decision gave Kansas, Georgia and Alabama officials a blessing to alter the federal voter registration applications handed out in motor vehicle offices and many other state agencies, replacing the oath with something stiffer: a demand for proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate.
There was but one problem, critics say: Mr. Newby had no authority to make policy, a power reserved for the agency’s four commissioners.
Mr. Newby calls his decision an administrative matter, not policy. He has said that he did not change the registration form, but merely its instructions, although federal administrative code calls the instructions part of the form.
“It wasn’t a ruling so much as a response to a request,” he said. “I wasn’t looking at it through the lens of proof of citizenship. I was looking at it as state law that necessitated changes in the instructions.”
Critics see something different.
“It’s trench warfare in the battle of voter suppression,” said Lloyd Leonard, the advocacy director of the League of Women Voters, the leader of the lawsuit against the commission.
The agency was effectively shuttered in 2010 when House Republicans took over, holding up appointments of commissioners for more than three years. When a GOP Senate came along in 2015, the agency suddenly got new plans going forward, resulting in Demby's hiring and his nasty little sleight of hand in January.
It's a chilling story to read. And the name that keeps popping up again and again is Kansas GOP Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is on a national crusade to disenfranchise as many Democrats as possible.
Keep an eye on him.