In January, less than a week into his presidency, Trump told lawmakers that between 3 million and 5 million illegal votes caused him to lose the popular vote — though not the election itself — to Democrat Hillary Clinton. He told senators a tale about ineligible voters being bussed into New Hampshire from Massachusetts. Trump then tapped Vice President Mike Pence to lead an investigation into voter fraud.
“You take a look at the registration, you have illegals, you have dead people you have this — it’s really a bad situation, it’s really bad,” Trump told Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in February when asked about election integrity.
That’s not how Matthew Masterson sees it.
The Center for Public Integrity last week spoke with Masterson about a range of election-related topics. Among them: voter fraud and suppression, U.S. House Republicans’ attempts to kill the Election Assistance Commission and his own goals for his one-year chairmanship at the tiny agency.
Formed by Congress after the 2000 presidential election’s Florida voting disaster — remember “hanging chads”? — the Election Assistance Commission largely exists to adopt voting system guidelines, promote election integrity and help states improve their balloting processes.
Masterson joined the Election Assistance Commission in 2014 after serving as a top elections official in Ohio.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Center for Public Integrity: Every time you hear somebody say, “Was the election rigged?”, what do you say to them? Was the 2016 election rigged?
Matthew Masterson: No. The process had integrity. It was extremely well administered. And in the end, the people’s voice was heard and the process served voters well.
Center for Public Integrity: How concerned are you, writ large, about voting fraud, and is this something that is real and something people need to be concerned about?
Masterson: Any fraud at all is something to be concerned about. The reality — and this data and information comes from those who directly run elections — is that the state and local election officials, and specifically the secretaries of state across the country that looked into it, find that fraud happens. It’s not widespread. It’s not an epidemic. But where it happens, it needs to be identified and prosecuted … I would encourage any voter that if they suspect there is fraudulent activity going on to work with their election officials to say something about it, and they can dig into it to find out what the facts are. We really need to look at just the facts. Those who run elections have the facts about this.
Center for Public Integrity: What should voters know about the way elections are run across the country, and what degree of confidence should voters have going forward about the quality of the vote itself?
Masterson: Coming off this election with all the conversation about rigging, hacking and whatnot: Voters should have confidence in the process, that it’s accessible, that it’s accurate, that it has integrity. This year bore this out more so than ever. With all the talk that went on, we talked to state and local election officials coming off the presidential, this was one of the best run federal elections that we’ve had. And that’s a real credit to those who are the boots on the ground, local election officials and the poll workers. The process is secure. It can always get better … [Voters] should know one fact: This election – this election process, this vote, the voting machines – were not accessed, were not hacked. The process was secure. They should also know there are layers of security in place that start long before the election takes place. Election officials start very early with pre-election testing, securing the voting systems, chain of custody procedures. How they train and deploy poll workers and the steps that they take to secure the system. Post-election auditing. These are all steps election officials take to have layers of security in and around the vote tally systems to ensure the process has integrity. This is not new to election officials. This conversation was news to a lot of Americans. Quite frankly, I think election officials did a great job embracing the conversation, saying, let me show you how this process works, let me educate you on the steps we take. The most important thing any voter should know: If they have questions, if they have concerns, they can get involved. They should go be poll workers. They can go watch the election testing of the voting systems. In many states, you can watch the public count of the vote or the post-election audit procedures. There are so many ways for voters to get involved. And I don’t know of an election official in any jurisdiction in the country that wouldn’t take more poll workers and more people involved.
Center for Public Integrity: One concern is the issue of not voter fraud but voter suppression. How big an issue that is, and do you have any evidence of widespread suppression or trying to keep people away from the polls?
Masterson: It’s something election officials hear about all the time. I can tell you my experience in Ohio. When we dug into that. It was virtually non-existent. But to the extent that election officials could, they looked at their processes, looked at ways they could both educate the public on the process to serve voters. It is my opinion, in the vast majority of jurisdictions today in America, it is easier to vote today that it has ever been. We have more days of early voting, more resources available like online registration, more outreach to voters in the form of voter information tools that they know when they can vote, where they can vote, what’s on their ballot. They are all enfranchising matters that election officials across the country have taken. The election community as a whole has really embraced this discussion to say: How can we work to serve voters better? It’s as easy to vote today as it’s ever been.
Center for Public Integrity: You’ve been chairperson for several weeks now since taking over. Talk about some of your top-line goals for the next year.
Masterson: We’re focusing on three main areas moving forward. One is helping election officials both maintain and upgrade the election technology infrastructure. Election officials across the country have aging equipment and are either looking to upgrade or switch out that equipment. And, so, we’re providing a variety of resources to help them do that. That’s everything from requests for purchase that other jurisdictions are putting out across the country with a guide — 10 tips on purchasing new election technology that we have for them to use — and then talking to them about what’s available for them out there and what serves their needs. Voters are looking to vote in ways that fit into their everyday lives. Two: accessibility. Not just in the traditional serving voters with disabilities, which has been a focus for the EAC since it started. But it also means serving voters with language needs. We’re going to have a language summit coming out in the summer to really help those jurisdictions have some resources and some best practices on how to serve these voters who have language assistance needs. And then three: There is this conversation about critical [voting] infrastructure. For election officials, details matter. Any change, and new process, is uncertainty for them. We’re really trying to help cope with that uncertainty by facilitating a dialogue about giving them the resources they need.
Center for Public Integrity: Is your job more difficult in that there are some people on Capitol Hill who would like to see the EAC, as an independent organization, either go away or be wrapped into the Federal Election Commission? How does that affect the work you just described, if at all?
Masterson: Obviously, we’re aware of it, but honestly, it doesn’t impact us. We remain focused on serving the state and local election officials that we work with and making sure that they have the resources available to them. We’re coming off the conversation on Tuesday bout critical infrastructure. We’re coming off the most interesting presidential election certainly any of us have ever seen and election officials have real needs and real questions about the security of the systems, the integrity of the process, so we’re working directly with them, as we have all along, to get them the resources they need to serve them well.
Center for Public Integrity: You and your colleagues have recently been to Capitol Hill. What happened?
Masterson: Senators had some questions for us about the security of the process and the steps the EAC took last year to help secure the process. We’re happy to inform them, talk to them, about the work we do, and the great work the election officials do across the country.
Center for Public Integrity: The EAC is celebrating its 15th anniversary as an agency. In your estimation, is the EAC as important to day as it was when it was first conceived and created?
Masterson: Yes — absolutely. Our mission remains as important, if not more important as it’s ever been. [Since the Help America Vote Act of 2002], elections have become more and more technological, have evolved. Up to 40 percent of voters now vote before Election Day. That’s a dramatic change in the way we operate and run elections. We have all-vote-by-mail states and innovations around online registration. Our job at the EAC is to recognize those trends and to work with those folks who do really great work out there to share those practices around the country.
Center for Public Integrity: Internet voting is something that gets talked about all the time. Do you see this happening in the next couple of years – or the next couple of decades?
Masterson: Some states are already doing it to serve a very specific population – and that’s military and overseas voters. It’s our job, if that’s how they’ve best found to serve those voters, to provide resources to help them do that well. As far as the long-term discussion around widespread internet voting: It is one of the most common questions election officials are asked. But the security risks around it are real, and I think we heard a lot of that conversation this last election cycle. As we look at the implications of internet voting on a wide scale, likely the security challenges are too great to overcome right now, but it is a conversation that is going to continue on as we look to the future, because election officials are asked about it, and there’s an expectation. But we’re not there yet.
Center for Public Integrity: What states are doing a good job at running elections? And what states need improvement?
Masterson: It’s hard for me to judge one state over another. But there are lots of states out there doing great work on this. One example is the states that have joined data sharing efforts where they’re exchanging data both within the states and across states to really identify: Where do we have duplicates? Where do we have deceased voters? Where do we have voters who’ve moved, and how do we reach out to them to make sure their information is up to date? The voter rolls today are in the best shape they’ve ever been in because of efforts like that by the states.
Center for Public Integrity: When the president’s budget proposal came out, there was a number of smaller agencies that had their budgets zeroed out. The EAC was not on that list. Does it give you some confidence that the president believes that you’re an agency worth keeping?
Masterson: We were thrilled to see that we’re in the budget. It’s an affirmation of the work that we’ve been doing. The agency’s existence is serving its purpose. With that reaffirmation comes a recommitment to us to every day evaluate what we’re doing and how we can really serve voters and election officials to fulfill our mission. Sure, we’re pleased to see that. But at the same time it’s a chance for us to make sure we remain focused on our goals and mission moving forward.
Center for Public Integrity: That all being said, you budget from your creation to this day has slid over the years. You’re not as financially robust or funded as you once were. Do you have the resources internally that you need, as far as you’re concerned, to do your work?
Masterson: We don’t know our number yet. We just know we are not on that list. But if reflective of where we’ve been, I think the EAC has what it needs to move forward. We’ve done great work with the resources we have. That’s exactly what we’ll continue to do. If we continue to be funded at the level we’re at, we’re thankful for that, and we’ll take that and use it to fulfill our mission.
Center for Public Integrity: Do you see voting as a partisan issue? Has it become a partisan issue?
Masterson: Coming from a state like Ohio, certainly there’s a tendency to have that conversation within the legislature. What I can tell you is my experience with election officials is that most if not all the issues are completely nonpartisan. To be honest, that’s how we try to model ourselves here at the EAC, as well. The three commissioners work together incredibly well to serve voters and election officials in a way that benefits the process. That’s a nonpartisan issue. The ability for every eligible citizen to exercise their rights should be a nonpartisan issue. We should want that. That’s the attitude election officials have across the country.
Center for Public Integrity: What would you like voters to know going into the gubernatorial elections that come up in 2017, and of course the midterm elections in 2018, about how good the system is and how to make it better.
Masterson: What I’d like voters to know most is that every vote matters. If you look at state and local elections across the country, there are hundreds if not thousands decided by one or a tied vote. Every vote matters. They need to take that seriously and invest the time they need to go vote in all of these elections. If they have questions about the process, they should go get involved with their local election office.
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.