A tiny federal agency that plays a crucial role in assisting the nation’s local election supervisors is gripped by a leadership crisis that has sparked concerns that it is unprepared to play its role in protecting the 2020 presidential race from foreign interference.
Brian Newby, the executive director of the Election Assistance Commission, has blocked important work on election security, micromanaged employees’ interactions with partners outside the agency and routinely ignored staff questions, according to former election officials, former federal employees and others who regularly work with the agency.
In doing so, Newby has not only frustrated his own employees and helped create a staff exodus — nine EAC office directors have left since Newby arrived — but also angered cybersecurity experts, election integrity activists and state and local officials. His reputation in the elections community conjures up “the eye-roll emoji,” said one former election official. “Everybody kind of puts up with him.”
POLITICO’s seven sources — all of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly — described Newby, a Republican, as too beholden to the EAC’s GOP chairwoman, Christy McCormick, who masterminded his appointment and later spent years denying the reality of Russian interference in the 2016 election. They also said that Newby alienated his agency almost immediately by wading into the issue of a citizenship requirement for voter eligibility — and that he has failed to regain their trust ever since.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the lawmakers most focused on election security, told POLITICO that “if these allegations are true, Brian Newby should immediately resign.”
“Our elections are too important for the Election Assistance Commission to be led by someone under the cloud of scandal and rampant mismanagement,” he said in a statement, referring in part to criticism over Newby’s tenure as election commissioner in Johnson County, Kan.
Newby disputed the complaints in an interview, defending his actions and saying the agency under his leadership had come a long way from its backwater status. McCormick has regularly praised Newby, including defending him from lawmakers’ criticism.
The troubles comes at a time of turmoil for other federal agencies responsible for defending critical U.S. computer networks from foreign hackers. The White House’s Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer is planning a reorganization this summer after POLITICO reported on complaints of infighting, high turnover and cratering morale. The Department of Homeland Security, which works with state election offices to secure their networks, has no permanent leader after former chief Kirstjen Nielsen resigned in April.
Newby’s work as the EAC’s top administrator has come under increasingly intense scrutiny from lawmakers as the end of his four-year term approaches in November. Lawmakers are considering whether to boost the agency’s budget in response to mounting election security threats, but sources said that more money and staff won’t matter as long as Newby remains in place.
House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), whose committee oversees the commission, agreed with Wyden that it was time for “new leadership” at the agency.
“The EAC has tremendous potential to be a credible resource that election officials can trust in times of need,” Lofgren said in a statement. “However, gross mismanagement from executive leadership cannot be allowed to derail the important mission of this agency.”
Roadblocks and radio silence
When Congress created the EAC after the 2000 presidential election’s hanging-chads debacle, lawmakers gave it a simple mission: Serve as a clearinghouse for best practices about election administration and prepare the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines, which many states have chosen to adopt as regulations.
The EAC’s four commissioners are the agency’s political leaders, making policy decisions like approving major voting-system guidance. The executive director is a career employee who supervises the staff and presents their work to the commissioners.
Russia’s 2016 interference dramatically raised the profile of the agency and its work, forcing it to make election security a priority and spurring calls to boost its budget and staff.
But at a time when the EAC should be leaning into its election security mission, Newby has repeatedly blocked action, two critics of his work told POLITICO.
They said Newby has occasionally told staff not to work on cybersecurity best-practices documents for state and local election officials — crucial guidance that many officials rely on as they run their elections. “The executive director was not supportive of them and put [up] roadblocks,” one former federal employee said.
“It was constant frustration,” said a second former government employee familiar with the tensions.
Newby has also prevented staff from participating in election security events, like conferences, panels and training sessions. The second former employee described hearing from EAC staffers who said, “We’d like to do this with a conference, but Brian says no.”
In addition, he often provides “zero response to direct questions,” said the first former employee. Sometimes, they said, EAC staffers will proceed with the work anyway, leading to “direct reprimands” from Newby. Employees fear that if they do certain work, “they’re going to get in trouble,” said the former employee.
During an interview in his office at the commission’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., Newby repeatedly disputed and questioned POLITICO’s reporting about the concerns.
He said he couldn’t respond to the claim about him blocking work on best-practice documents “without knowing what those documents are.” He said he wasn’t “aware” of having stopped work on any initiatives.
Regarding his efforts to keep staff from participating in conferences and events, he said, “I don’t know what that’s referring to,” though he pointed out that he may have made some travel decisions because of budgetary constraints.
McCormick defended Newby during a May 21 hearing of the House Administration Committee. “I think that Mr. Newby is doing a fine job,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that there are some people who are attacking him.” Asked about internal dissatisfaction, she said “unhappy” employees “have left the agency.”
Wyden told POLITICO that McCormick “needs to end her unconditional support for this scandal-plagued official.”
Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), whose panel oversees the EAC, said in a statement that the agency “has a responsibility to ensure that the employees that it appoints are doing their jobs.”
Despite the issue’s importance, Newby has never made a priority of election security, four people knowledgeable about his work told POLITICO.
One voting security researcher described briefing Newby on an issue and hearing Newby promise to tell the commissioners about it. Two months later, the researcher talked to the commissioners and discovered that Newby never briefed them.
“I have stopped using him as an information conduit to the agency as a consequence,” the researcher said.
Newby also doesn’t fully understand election security or why it’s important, said two former election officials.
The voting security researcher recalled talking to Newby about a plan by Microsoft to develop secure electronic voting technology. “He was gobsmacked and kind of suspicious — like, ‘Why would a large corporation care about stable democracies?’”
Seeking to control the agency’s every action, Newby has micromanaged staff interactions with people and agencies outside the EAC, two of the people said. He repeatedly describes himself as “the face to other agencies,” said a former government employee, and tells staff that “nobody should be talking to outside entities without his awareness and/or his approval.”
Newby doesn’t trust his employees “to have meaningful conversations that don’t include him,” said a former election official.
Newby told POLITICO that he wants and deserves to be “aware of what’s going on in the agency,” especially when it comes to relationships with external partners like other agencies. In some cases, he said, staff might not be aware that an issue relates to “a high-level discussion” that commissioners have asked about; in those cases, it would be his role to monitor that work for the commissioners.
“Of course I’d want to have some insight into what’s going on,” he said. “I think that’s only reasonable.”
Asked about further complaints that he has ignored employees’ questions, Newby said, “I’m sure there’s times that I haven’t responded to somebody who’s asked for some guidance, just because we’re busy.”
His critics say Newby has also failed to effectively mediate between EAC commissioners and staff, one of the executive director’s main jobs. Instead, said the election integrity expert and a former election official, Newby is trying to be a “fifth commissioner.”
“He’s a bit too deferential [and] doesn’t push back,” said the expert.
As a result, this person said, employees don’t feel appropriately insulated from the EAC’s political decision-makers.
Asked about the “fifth commissioner” idea, Newby said he would “have to know more about who said that” in order to answer.
The steady staff exodus received heightened attention with the departure in May of Ryan Macias, the acting director of testing and certification. Macias had replaced Brian Hancock, who had been testing director since the EAC launched in 2003 but had left in March.
Newby’s behavior played a big role in Macias’ exit, three people told POLITICO.
Macias and Hancock’s departures “knocked the wind out of the technical sails of the EAC,” said the voting security researcher.
The responsibilities of the nine office directors who left cover almost every part of the agency, from research and testing to policy and human resources. A former government employee said Newby “was a major factor in the majority of the people that have left … since he got there.”
Newby said that he couldn’t “speak to why people have left” but that he hadn’t “heard someone say they left out of frustration [with] me.”
Employee survey data underscores the frustrations. Between 2016 — Newby’s first full year as executive director — and 2017, the percentage of employees who expressed satisfaction with senior leaders’ “policies and practices” dropped 23 points.
Asked about the data, Newby said it also applied to the commissioners and pointed to the unpopular departure of former commissioner Matt Masterson, saying it “happened right around the time of that survey.” But Masterson left in March 2018, long after the survey was conducted.
The staff departures may continue. Several junior staffers on the research team “have been considering their next steps,” said the election integrity expert.
The House aide bemoaned the exodus. “There are talented people … who want to do their job, who are dedicated public servants, and who are so deeply frustrated and put off by the executive director’s leadership style that they’re hemorrhaging talent.”
A rocky start
Newby was no one’s first choice to serve as executive director. But in 2015, as the EAC’s advisory boards considered a list of candidates, a split emerged between those who wanted someone with federal leadership experience and those who preferred someone with election administration expertise. Newby ended up as “a compromise candidate,” said one former election official.
McCormick badly wanted to hire Newby, but she needed the votes of the other two commissioners. So she floated a deal, three people knowledgeable about the matter said. To win over Thomas Hicks, she proposed that the EAC simultaneously hire Cliff Tatum, a Democrat whom Hicks liked, as the agency’s general counsel.
Hicks agreed, leaving Masterson with a choice: Accept the deal or leave the EAC without an executive director. Masterson went along with the deal. In November 2015, the EAC hired Newby and Tatum for four-year terms. Masterson did not respond to a request for comment.
The problems started almost immediately. In February 2016, Newby took the action for which he is best known: He approved requests from Georgia, Alabama and his home state of Kansas to require residents filling out the federal voter registration form to prove they were citizens. Hicks blasted the move, saying it “contradict[ed] policy and precedent.”
“That really just killed his credibility with a good number of election officials,” said one former election official.
Many lawmakers and EAC staffers thought Newby “overly politicized his role,” said the election integrity expert.
In the interview, Newby denied that his decision was about proof of citizenship, saying he was merely trying to “compare state instructions to federal instructions.” He argued that the criticisms in POLITICO’s story were “related to a political attack because of the proof-of-citizenship thought.”
Newby doesn’t regret his decision. “I made the correct decision, the only one I could do by law,” he said.
Later in 2016, Newby’s troubles deepened. The Associated Press reported that it had obtained documents that revealed that as Johnson County election commissioner, he had “berated employees,” “deliberately bypassed supervision” and had an affair with a subordinate that he used to cover up “lavish” taxpayer-funded trips and equipment purchases.
As the story emerged, said one former election official, “there were a lot of [people] on the [EAC advisory boards] that … wished they had known” about his scandals before he was hired.
‘Most people want to see him gone’
People who regularly deal with the EAC describe Newby as alternately infuriating or irrelevant.
One former election official recalled, “If we needed something, we’d either go to one of the commissioners or to whoever the relevant staffer was.”
Newby rarely attends events to represent the agency, the election integrity expert said, describing this as unusual for an executive director.
“If you asked most people, ‘Does Brian Newby provide value to you in your job?’” said one former election official, “you would probably get, ‘Who’s Brian Newby?’ or ‘No.’”
The House aide was more blunt: “His reputation is poor and most people want to see him gone.”
But getting rid of Newby won’t be easy, thanks to his close relationship with McCormick. In recent congressional testimony, she has advanced what two sources called a dubious theory: The EAC legally cannot begin searching for a new executive director until the position becomes vacant in November.
The EAC’s founding statute, the Help America Vote Act, is not clear on this point. “I don’t know what she’s basing it on,” said one former election official.
McCormick’s decision to block a search process is a cynical ploy, according to the House aide. If the EAC doesn’t have a list of candidates by the time Newby’s term expires, the aide said, McCormick will pressure the other commissioners to reappoint Newby rather than leaving a vacancy three months before the first 2020 presidential primaries.
“She’s creating a fake crisis in order to preserve him,” the aide said.
But it is unclear whether Hicks would vote for Newby again after his proof-of-citizenship controversy. During the House hearing, Hicks described Newby’s future as “something that the commission should look at.”
Newby’s top priority right now is keeping his job, said four of the people POLITICO spoke with for this story. “That’s why … he’s so deferential to the commissioners,” said the election integrity expert. “He needs to keep them happy.”
Newby acknowledged that he wanted to be reappointed. “I think I’ve done a really good job, and I think our staff has done a really good job,” he said, adding that the EAC had experienced “a pretty big turnaround” under his leadership. “So yeah, I’d like to continue the work.”
As Newby and McCormick weigh the odds of his reappointment, EAC employees and outside groups are left wondering where this leaves the agency as its partners gear up for 2020. Multiple people said that between staff shortages, low morale and a lack of guidance from Newby, the EAC is ill-prepared to fully participate in this process alongside DHS and the FBI.
Newby “doesn’t have experience or energy to use the agency that he’s in charge of and the power that he has to improve what happened the last time,” said a former election official.
The irony, sources said, is that the EAC has never had a better opportunity to prove its worth. It survived years of Republican defunding threats and is close to finishing the landmark VVSG 2.0 update.
“This is really the moment that the EAC should be much more high-profile, and they’re missing the opportunity,” said an election integrity expert. “As we’re going into 2020, this is the time where they should be getting that attention, and there is no plan for that.”
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