It was not an auspicious beginning. The year was 2004 and the newest federal agency had no desks, no computers, and no office to put them in. It had neither an address nor a phone number. Early meetings convened in a Starbucks near a Metro stop in downtown Washington.
Somehow, Congress had neglected to fund the Election Assistance Commission, a small group with a massive task: coordinating one of the most sweeping voter reform packages in decades.
"It sounds incredible, but it's true," said Paul DeGregorio, a Republican from Missouri and former commission chairman. "All we wanted to do was hit the ground running."
But from the beginning, the commission stumbled. Now, long after Congress passed the Help America Vote Act — designed to prevent a repeat of the Florida recount fiasco of 2000 — the four-member, bipartisan commission still struggles under its heavy workload and accusations of playing politics, foot-dragging and whitewashing reports that could appear detrimental to Republican interests.
Under the act, commissioners are required to serve as a clearinghouse for voluntary guidelines and reports on ballot issues. They also audit federal funds awarded to state and local voting officials, and assist states during general elections.
In the run up to November's presidential election, the commission continues to grapple with hot-button topics such as how to test and certify voting machines. Voting advocates say the lack of such standards contributes to malfunctioning touch-screen equipment and long waits, as evidenced in Ohio in 2004, when presidential results were delayed for days.
The agency remains stalemated on other important issues, including whether states can require people to provide proof of citizenship before they can register to vote — an especially touchy subject exacerbated by a Supreme Court decision this spring upholding Indiana law demanding voters present a government-issued photo ID before casting a ballot.
Both past and present commissioners complain they were granted little power to force states to implement reforms, and that they often are battered by the brutal nature of partisan politics in the nation's capital.
"It was the worst experience of my life. It was obvious going in that we weren't going to accomplish much," says former chairman DeForest Soaries, a Baptist minister who served as New Jersey's secretary of state under GOP Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. Soaries, also a Republican, quit the commission 15 months after taking the job in January 2004.
"No one took the agency seriously," Soaries said. "All of the passion and all of the commitment to ensure that 2000 would never be repeated — that was all Washington theatrics. I was running around Congress begging people to take seriously a law they passed. Every time I raised a question about a problem, the Democrats accused me of partisan maneuvering and the Republicans accused me of wanting more power."
Whatever their feelings about lacking power, commissioners faced several mandates under the voting act as soon as they started working together.
One of the most urgent issues was deciding which states would get part a $3 billion pie to overhaul antiquated and problematic voting machines — the first federal money ever awarded for that purpose.
Not helping matters was the fact that nearly a year had passed from enactment of the reform legislation in 2002 to selection of the commission that would oversee it. That meant the clock had already started clicking on some deadlines before the commission members were even confirmed by the Senate.
Eventually, Congress gave the commission a fiscal 2004 operating budget of about $700,000, including salaries, an insufficient sum that limited members from the beginning, commissioners said.
Though funding and staff have increased this year to $115 million and more than 20 positions, election activists say neither is sufficient to keep up with all the work the commission must produce.
"They started out with their legs cut out from under them," said Tova Wang, a research vice president for Common Cause. "It's taken them a long time to catch up with the learning curve. And they're still learning."
Allegations of foot-dragging and whitewashing most notably concerned reports commissioned by the agency on two contentious issues: election tampering and requiring photo ID at the polls.
Commissioners created trouble for themselves by holding on to drafts for months, and by extensively rewriting one without the permission of the authors, according to testimony from election advocates before members of the House Appropriations Committee.
The evaluation of election fraud, by the Century Foundation think tank and an Arkansas attorney, found little evidence of voter impersonation or of felons trying to illegally cast ballots. The commission rewrote the report's findings to say "there is a great deal of debate over the pervasiveness of fraud."
The second report, a Rutgers University study, urged caution when requiring photo ID at the polls. The survey found that states imposing strict identification regulations experienced turnout rates nearly 5 percent lower than jurisdictions with less restrictive laws.
Democratic members of Congress and election advocates harshly criticized the agency over those delays and revisions, saying they undermined public faith in both the commission and election reform.
Commissioners countered they were doing their best under difficult circumstances.
"I am not at all surprised that my former agency was perhaps slow in delivering some of those products," said Ray Martinez, a Democratic appointee who served for 2½ years before resigning for personal reasons in 2006. "But we were deliberative. We were contemplative."
A yearlong investigation by agency Inspector General Curtis Crider followed.
In findings recently released, Crider said he found no "improper reasons" or "political motivations" behind the revisions. However, he criticized the way in which commission members handled the study, calling it poorly conceived and managed.
Commissioners acknowledge there have been mistakes on the bumpy road to voting reform, but say they were honest blunders.
"Have we done everything perfect? No, we haven't," said Donetta Davidson, a Republican who previously served as Colorado's secretary of state. She was sworn in two years ago to replace Soaries.
After the fraud report dustup, the commission posted more than 40,000 internal documents on its Web site. Criticized by Congress members as well as the agency's inspector general for lacking procedural rules and operating behind closed doors with little transparency, commission staff now post Web casts of agency meetings and copies of research reports.
"It takes time to get things right," Davidson said.
Despite its woes, commissioners have been able to meet some obligations, including establishing voting guidelines, though voluntary, for election jurisdictions, and teaching election officials how to distribute "provisional" ballots — paper ballots considered the antidote to Florida's punch-card, "hanging chad" design debacle.
"A lot of people can't fully appreciate what it's like," said Gracia Hillman, the only original commissioner still with the agency. A Democrat and former president of the League of Women Voters, Hillman was nominated by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who would later become the first female speaker of the House.
"We were not only established in response to a crisis, we also have a rotating, two-year deadline to help local officials with elections," said Hillman. "The federal government is just not kind toward quick turnarounds."
Soaries, who has no regrets about quitting, nonetheless sympathizes with current members and the obstacles they still face.
"I feel so sorry for them," he said. "They are victims of the way the agency started. They're still playing catch-up. It's a shame. What they're supposed to be doing is critical to the functioning of democracy."