Center for American Progress

Democracy at a Crossroads: A Q&A About Free and Fair Elections With EAC Chairman Benjamin Hovland

Democracy at a Crossroads: A Q&A About Free and Fair Elections With EAC Chairman Benjamin Hovland

As America’s election system continues to face formidable challenges, Chairman Benjamin Hovland of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission again shares his views with CAP about ways to respond.

Photo shows someone sliding a paper ballot into an electronic ballot scanner.
Election judges submit test ballots into a machine during a public accuracy test of voting equipment on August 3, 2022, in Burnsville, Minnesota. (Getty/Stephen Maturen)

With the general election less than five months away, U.S. democracy continues to encounter substantial challenges. And with far-reaching democracy reform legislation blocked in the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) plays a larger-than-normal role in helping to ensure free and fair elections. In the interview below, the EAC’s current chairman, Benjamin Hovland, spoke with the Center for American Progress about a wide range of pressing issues, including how the agency is helping election officials administer the election and is taking other steps to help strengthen democracy, including tackling the emerging area of generative artificial intelligence (AI). This discussion follows a similar CAP interview with Hovland in November 2021. As the chairman states below, important steps are necessary to address the ongoing threats to U.S. elections and, if successful, these actions can lead to a stronger and more resilient democracy.


Free and fair elections are a backbone of a representative democracy that can deliver meaningful results for the American people. Unfortunately, the U.S. election system is encountering challenges—both old and new—from many directions.

According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, newly passed laws mean that “voters in 27 states will face restrictions in the 2024 election that they’ve never experienced in a presidential election before.” Many of these voter suppression or election sabotage laws are based on “the big lie” that the 2020 presidential election results were invalid due to widespread voter fraud. A large share of Americans believes this dangerous piece of disinformation. Falsely smeared for not conducting trustworthy elections, many election officials have been targeted with harassment and death threats, causing a large number of them to leave their jobs, taking with them their valuable institutional knowledge.

At the same time, the emergence of AI has become “a new vector for potential harms to democratic and fair elections,” as discussed in a September 2023 CAP report. These problems come on top of more enduring challenges, such as persistent budget limitations, potential cyberattacks on various components of the election process, equipment problems, and poll worker shortages, among others.

Now more than ever, new federal laws are needed to provide baseline national standards to help ensure free and fair elections and protect the right to vote. Unfortunately, progress on far-reaching legislation such as the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act has been blocked. The EAC’s mission “to help election officials improve the administration of elections and help Americans participate in the voting process” has become ever more important.

Benjamin Hovland was nominated as an EAC commissioner by President Donald Trump and confirmed by unanimous consent of the U.S. Senate in 2019. Soon after, Hovland was elevated to his first one-year term as EAC chairman at a time when the nation conducted the 2020 presidential election during the COVID-19 pandemic, which posed unprecedented challenges. Under his leadership, the EAC administered approximately $825 million in federal grant money to assist state and local election officials in responding to the pandemic and to enhance election security, ultimately helping to ensure that those officials administered a secure and fair election. Before his elevation to the EAC, Hovland served as the acting chief counsel on the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, working for the committee’s lead Democrat, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (MN). Earlier in his career, Hovland was deputy general counsel for the Missouri secretary of state’s office and worked as an attorney for a nonprofit organization dedicated to removing barriers to registration and voting.

This interview, conducted principally via written answers in late May and early June of 2024, during Hovland’s second term as chairman, has been lightly edited for consistency of style.

CAP: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with CAP. Can you tell us about your role as EAC chairman and what you are focusing on most as chairman? 

Hovland: Right now, we have to be focused on supporting state and local election officials through the 2024 election cycle. The public servants who run our elections across the country are facing an array of challenges, including mis- and disinformation, physical threats and harassment, increased cybersecurity challenges, and significant professional turnover, along with an inconsistent funding environment. Looking across the county, it is harder and more expensive than ever to administer elections.

As a result, as chair of the EAC, my focus is squarely on providing resources and support to help our election officials meet the demands of this moment. One example of this: To help reduce some of the cost and staff time needed for their work, the EAC has focused on producing easily customizable toolkits and templates to help local election officials communicate important election processes to voters, such as poll worker recruitment.

The EAC has also continued to set the standard for the testing and security of voting equipment, which many states and localities depend on as they look to make investments in the next generation of voting technology. The EAC’s rigorous testing and certification process, culminating in official EAC certification, is the seal of approval that drives many of the procurement decisions made at the state and local levels. And we’re working to stay ahead of future threats, including leading the migration to VVSG 2.0 (the updated Voluntary Voting System Guidelines), which will have a positive impact on election security for elections well after the 2024 cycle.

CAP: As we discussed in 2021, the EAC does a tremendous amount of work across different areas. Since we last talked, what have been the most important areas on which the EAC has focused? 

Hovland: The agency has seen a very productive period in the last few years. With budget increases and additional support from Congress, the agency has been able to significantly expand its support of election officials around the country. Much of this has been done by building up the agency’s clearinghouse function, which provides resources and best practices to state and local officials across the country. In the past few years, the EAC has produced dozens of informational products highlighting best practices in election administration, including resources to help local election officials amplify their voices as the trusted source of accurate election administration information.

Additionally, with significant turnover in the field of elections, the EAC is focused on capturing valuable lessons learned and best practices from veteran election officials that can be turned into resources and training to assist the next generation of election professionals.

The EAC has also stayed ahead of the curve on emerging election technology. One exciting new effort is the establishment of the Election Supporting Technology Evaluation Program (ESTEP) to create a voluntary certification program for election technology that is outside of the traditional voting systems that the EAC certifies. The ESTEP program recently launched a certification program for electronic poll books, and pilot efforts this year will examine election night reporting and electronic ballot delivery systems.

CAP: Funding and budgetary issues are always a major focus. Can you share your view on the EAC budget, as well as grant funding for state and local officials, that has been proposed or provided by the president and Congress? 

Hovland: The EAC’s budget has seen notable increases since an all-time low in 2019, and I am pleased to say we have now finally passed 2010 funding levels (adjusted for inflation). This increased funding has directly led to significant gains in agency capacity and programmatic output. While these increases are greatly appreciated, the trajectory must continue if the agency is to meet the growing demands on election administrators. In 2021, I testified to the House Committee on Appropriations that the EAC’s budget should be $100 million annually. Even though that is nearly four times the agency’s current budget, I still stand by that number and hope Congress will make that investment in our democracy.

The EAC also distributes grants to the states when funding is provided from Congress. Since 2018, that has included over $1 billion of Help America Vote Act (HAVA) Election Security grants. This year, Congress appropriated $55 million for this grant program to be divided among the 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia. While we have heard from many election officials and stakeholders that much more is needed, it is positive that Congress has appropriated funding in this area in five of the last seven fiscal years. Federal funding amounts to just a small portion of the amount state and local offices spend on elections, but it has the potential to make a huge impact as it is generally used for new programs or areas that would not otherwise be possible. As we look beyond the 2024 election cycle, additional funding will be critical to meeting the evolving challenges facing our election officials and our democracy.

CAP: In 2021, you shared your views about the most noteworthy election administration success stories that came out of the 2020 election cycle, which occurred during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Are you still seeing those success stories and the effects of related reforms three years later? 

Hovland: The successful administration of the 2020 elections can be attributed to the dedication, passion, and hard work of election administrators, their teams, and community partners. It is truly amazing that even during a global pandemic, we were able to have one of the best-administered elections of my career. I continue to see that passion and dedication from so many election officials across the country. Truly, one of the best parts of my job is seeing firsthand the work, innovation, and commitment our local election officials dedicate to our democracy every day. The EAC recognizes some of this great work through our annual Clearinghouse Awards or “Clearies.” As commissioners, we look forward to making phone calls to the offices that have been selected and hearing the pride they have in their work and serving the voters in their communities.

CAP: What do you think were some aspects of the most recent election cycles that didn’t necessarily work as well as you’d like to see, or where is there room for improvement? 

Hovland: The elections environment has evolved over the past few years, and election officials must adapt. One such example is that historically, when the average voter thought about elections, that might mean voting, watching election night coverage on the news, seeing the presumptive winner, and that was the end of the election for them. However, even when this was the case, the work for election officials continued as they verified the totals and certified the official results. Many of the safeguards in the process are not known to the average voter, and historically, there was less public interest in the nuance of elections, so administrators had not needed to prioritize communicating these processes to a wide audience.

In a constantly evolving information environment that makes the spread of mis-, dis-, and malinformation easier than ever, it is critical that election officials across the country show their work and tell the story about how they run elections securely and accurately. This has to be done in a transparent and accessible way without the professional jargon many of us are accustomed to using.

CAP: Regrettably, even though it has been three years since we last discussed the fact that some political leaders peddled falsehoods about widespread election fraud and other matters designed to reduce faith in elections, this lamentable trend continues. Moreover, we are seeing increased threats of political violence—often aimed at election administrators or workers. What are your latest thoughts on these harmful dynamics and the challenges they pose to our system of free and fair elections? And how have election administrators and workers tried to rise above unnecessary partisanship and carry out their democracy duties, despite constant threats? 

Hovland: In the last several election cycles, there have been unprecedented levels of mis- and disinformation, from both foreign and domestic sources, about the integrity of U.S. elections and election results. These false narratives have led to threats and harassment against election administrators themselves, which is unacceptable. Since the 2020 elections, we have heard distressing stories about the threats and harassment election officials have faced with the increased politicization of election administration. These incidents have affected the individuals involved and the entire elections community, from volunteer poll workers to full-time elected officials.

While this has undoubtedly and understandably contributed to some of the election administrator turnover, I am continually amazed by the public servants who run our elections. Traveling around the country, I’m able to see the similarities and differences in how each state runs its elections. Across the country, the public servants who run our elections are focused on good governance and customer service. They have somehow renewed their already herculean efforts regarding administration of election processes, trainings, and contingency planning to ensure the smooth running of elections, as well as making sure transparency and accountability measures are in place so they can show their work if there are questions about the integrity of the election process or results.

CAP: Since we last talked in 2021, generative AI is now a major force to be reckoned with. What are some of AI’s biggest implications for free and fair elections? What are the potential upsides and the potential dangers? 

Hovland: While there may be some potential benefits to using AI tools related to elections in the long term, such as streamlining certain administrative processes, limitations to the accuracy of such content will require review and oversight by election staff. The EAC is already putting out materials and resources for election officials on AI and elections.

In the short term and for the 2024 election cycle, the potential concerns of AI will likely continue to outweigh the potential benefits. Of particular concern is the ability to use AI to further amplify mis- and disinformation and to lower the barrier to producing more convincing inaccurate content about elections.

The best way to combat mis- and disinformation, whether generated by AI or not, is through voter education. Unfortunately, too often election officials do not have sufficient resources for robust efforts in this area. I believe we are entering an era where voter education can no longer be optional. Voter education and outreach efforts must be invested in and should have dedicated funding to ensure voters have easy access to trusted-source information on how our elections are administered.

CAP: I know that government ethics rules prevent you from lobbying for or against specific legislation. But generally, what are your latest thoughts about what you see happening on Capitol Hill, where there are several key bills pending, such as the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, among others, which have been blocked by the Senate filibuster? Can you talk about the need for federal legislation, especially to counteract some state laws that make it easier to suppress voters or overturn valid election results? 

Hovland: The EAC is an independent, bipartisan commission charged with being a national clearinghouse of election administration information. As part of this function, the four commissioners travel and meet with election officials across the country to keep up with what is happening on the ground. While election processes differ from state to state, election officials themselves are a tight-knit community and are committed to running secure, smooth, and accurate elections. There is a lot of common ground and ideas on how to improve the voter experience and safeguard our election infrastructure. We have seen such proposals passed in states where legislators acted in good faith and listened to their election administrators on the ground. This is a bigger challenge in Congress, but at the end of 2022, Congress came together to pass the bipartisan Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act to update procedures for the counting of electoral votes and [for] the presidential transition process. With the challenges facing our democracy, Congress can and must protect the right to vote and invest the resources in our democratic infrastructure to ensure free, fair, accurate, and accessible elections for years to come.

CAP: I want to conclude with a question we ended with three years ago: Looking to the future, if you had a magic wand and a robust budget, what would you envision for the EAC and how it helps protect our democracy? 

Hovland: Looking back at my response three years ago, it all comes back to our mission and what the EAC was designed to be: a customer service agency to help election officials improve the administration of elections and help Americans participate in the voting process. The EAC has made huge strides since our last discussion, and I am so proud of our team and the work we have been able to do. That said, there is much more we can and want to do to support election officials, American voters, and our democracy. The challenges we are facing are unlike anything I have seen in this country during my lifetime. We are asking state and local election officials to take on more and more responsibilities and become experts in many new areas, while also combating unprecedented threats. Local election officials continue to do amazing work and deserve so much credit for that, but we cannot keep asking them to do more without providing additional support.

The EAC has been doing what it can to support the elections community, but the needs of the community outpace the agency’s current resource levels. If provided with adequate funding, the EAC is well positioned to meet the demands of the moment and can proactively be part of the solutions to the challenges facing our democracy. Practical solutions like supporting communications, providing supplemental technical expertise, hosting a one-stop-shop web portal for basic election information, and developing new training programs would go a long way to supporting voters and local election officials across the country.


As Hovland observes, unprecedented challenges facing American democracy demand concerted action, including from Congress. The chairman appropriately states that “Congress can and must protect the right to vote and invest the resources in our democratic infrastructure to ensure free, fair, accurate, and accessible elections for years to come.” When U.S. elections are free, fair, and properly funded, and when lawmakers duly represent their constituents’ interests, Congress can then pass popular, commonsense policies—such as more affordable health care, clean energy, and gun violence prevention—that will help improve quality of life for all Americans. Ultimately, this positive dynamic will produce democracy dividends, as people will build trust in the system, and the promise of the American dream will become far more achievable for all.

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Michael Sozan

Senior Fellow

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