From the way that Democratic state election officials have rushed to praise a federal elections agency commissioner who is being passed over for another term, you wouldn’t know that the commissioner originally was a Republican appointee.
But Speaker Paul Ryan’s apparent decision not to extend Matt Masterson’s tenure at the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission has been met with disappointment and outright anxiety from state election officials who worked with Masterson on a regular basis.
Masterson’s likely departure comes at a time when issues of cyber-security — issues that Masterson has made a focus of his work — are emerging as a top priority for the commission.
“He’s too smart a guy, he’s too professional a guy, to lose him at a time when our democracy is suffering from serious threats,” said Rhode Island Secretary Nellie Gorbea (D) in a phone interview with TPM Friday.
Last week, Reuters reported that Ryan had decided not to recommend that Masterson, a former aide to the Ohio Republican Secretary of State, serve another term at the EAC. The commission, created by the 2002 Help America Vote Act to serve as a resource for state elections officials, was set up to have four commissioners, with each majority and minority leader of the Senate and House recommending someone for the President to nominate. The commissioners serve a four-year term, with the option that they can be selected to serve a second term.
Masterson’s appointment to the panel was approved by the Senate unanimously in 2014, after he was recommended for the position by then-Speaker John Boehner, and nominated by President Obama. Masterson became EAC chair in February 2017.
It’s not uncommon for commissioners to only serve one term, particularly after a change in party leadership. Ryan’s spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, called the Reuters report “sensationalized.”
“The appointment from the previous speaker expired in December and we are nominating our own selection – this is fairly routine,” she said in a statement. “We nominate people for a variety of positions and generally speaking choose our own folks.”
The White House did not respond to TPM’s inquiries on the status of the nomination. An EAC spokesperson said last week that the commission was not commenting on the Reuters report.
“I was surprised and disappointed, I don’t think anybody expected it,” said Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Michael Haas, who told TPM he first heard in January that Masterson would not be serving a second term. “Prior to finding out about it, I don’t think there were any hints that that was in the works.”
Masterson has stayed on at the EAC while his replacement is chosen. Democratic commissioner Thomas Hicks formally took over Masterson’s chairmanship on Saturday.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) office said they have made no announcements to make on whether he’d recommend that the other Republican commissioner, Christy McCormick, serve another term. (The fourth commissioner position remains vacant.)
In interviews with TPM, state elections officials praised Masterson for transcending partisan politics and other issues that had in the past hobbled the commission.
“He was a real bridge between Democrats and Republicans, the most knowledgeable there on the actual functioning of elections — the actual procedure — because he’s been an election official in Ohio,” said Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, a former president of the National Secretaries of State (NASS).
A spokesperson for the current president, Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson (R-IN), didn’t return a request for comment.
Merrill and other state officials lauded the role Masterson played as a liaison between the EAC, state elections offices and the Department of Homeland Security, which is playing a more active role in assisting states in cyber security. Last January, then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson designated election systems as critical infrastructure, citing cybersecurity threats.
“When the DHS got involved, they did not have very much understanding as to how elections actually worked,” Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams (R) told TPM Tuesday. “As they worked to develop better expertise there, Matt was a great advocate for the states and local components.”
Trump administration officials, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, have since warned that Russians plan to meddle in the 2018 election midterms. The FBI — in coordination with the Department of Homeland Security — has set up its own foreign influence task-force for elections.
“It seems like a poor decision — if only because at this particular moment, where everyone is claiming that cybersecurity and elections are such a priority — to not appoint the one person who’s really the best equipped…to become a bridge between two different federal agencies plus all the states,” Merrill said. “I don’t know. It took me by surprise.”
Last May, Republicans on the House Administration Committee voted to eliminate the EAC, which many in the GOP have feared could allow the federal government to usurp states’ rights to run their own elections. The legislation was never brought to a vote in the full House.
But Merrill and other state election officials TPM spoke to stopped short of accusing Republicans of any nefarious motives — to hobble the EAC or otherwise — in seeking to replace Masterson.
“This is part of what happens. Representative Ryan, it’s up to him to make that decision,” Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos told TPM Friday.
“The EAC is more valuable to states today than it has been in the past. And I think it would be a shame if an appointment was made that either stepped up partisan politics or tried essentially do away with the EAC,” Condos said.
The other Republican commissioner, McCormick, has been skeptical of the idea of DHS getting more involved with cyber security and has even questioned the intel community assessment that Russians meddled in the 2016 elections.
“This declassified report was not about the November elections; it was about politics,” she said in a January 2017 statement bashing DHS’s designation of elections as critical infrastructure. “Connecting the allegations in the report to the election administration process and asserting that it rose to the level of interference in our elections is a gross and incorrect characterization.”
The press release announcing Hicks as the new chairman said that cybersecurity would continue to be a priority for the commission.
McCormick also attracted scrutiny for her participation on President Trump’s bogus voter fraud commission, which was shut down earlier this year under a barrage of lawsuits.
Masterson, meanwhile, earned a reputation for his professionalism and competency.
“On both sides. I’ve never heard anybody say, have any kind of negative story about Masterson,” Gorbea said.
“I’m not sure I am so worried about some scheme to replace as him as much as I am concerned that whomever replaces him, will not be the kind of person that will be as non-partisan,” Merrill said.