Ben Hovland, JD ‘07, chair of the US Election Assistance Commission, reflects on the 2020 elections and process

Ben Hovland

“To me, election administration shouldn’t be about politics. It's about good governance and customer service and making sure Americans can vote.” -Ben Hovland

This week, the United States Congress will meet in a joint session to formally count the 2020 Electoral College votes. Ben Hovland, a commissioner and chair of the US Election Assistance Commission (EAC), views this joint session as an opportunity for the nation’s leaders to uphold the democratic electoral process.

Hovland was nominated by President Trump and confirmed by unanimous consent of the US Senate in 2019. As one of four commissioners of the EAC, Hovland has sought to use this position to improve election administration and remove barriers to voting.

The EAC is an independent, bipartisan commission charged with developing guidance to meet Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) requirements, adopting voluntary voting system guidelines, and serving as a national clearinghouse of information on election administration for local election officials serving over 9,000 jurisdictions around the country.

The Commission also accredits voting system test laboratories and certifies voting systems, as well as audits the use of HAVA funds. This year, the EAC distributed almost $1 billion to the states to help with election security and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the voting process.

“To me, election administration shouldn’t be about politics,” Hovland said. “It's about good governance and customer service and making sure Americans can vote.”

Hovland’s commitment to public service has spanned over 20 years and is something that he was able to refine during his time at Oregon Law. While at the law school, he says that he was provided with many opportunities to explore various areas of the law, engage with the community, and discover ways to make a difference.

Hovland participated in the ASUO Student Senate, Student Bar Association, Oregon Law Students Public Interest Fund, Wayne Morse Center, Oregon Law Review Journal, as well as the Loan Repayment Assistance Program.

His law review article focused on reforming the ballot initiative process and his first job out of law school was with the Missouri Secretary of State's office working on ballot initiative litigation. From his first legal job out of law school to the one he has now, respecting the vote of the American people has been paramount.

“As an election and voting rights attorney, I have been privileged to have several opportunities to help large numbers of Americans participate in our democracy,” Hovland said.

And this year, Hovland says that the 2020 Presidential Election saw the most Americans vote in history. More than 150 million people voted and approximately 50 percent of those individuals cast their ballots by mail. He says that “convenience voting” or vote by mail, absentee voting, and early voting are options the general public continues to want as part of the electoral process.

Convenience voting has come a long way since 1995, when Oregon was the first state to hold federal primary elections via mail. One of the misconceptions that EAC has helped to combat is that the 2020 elections were fraudulent, and that mail-in-voting is corrupt. Prior to 2020, Hovland says that mail-in-voting has been regarded as legitimate and supported by both Republicans and Democrats.

Senator Ron Wyden
Recently Senator Ron Wyden (JD '74) introduced the Vote by Mail Act of 2019 to amend the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to allow all eligible voters to vote by mail in Federal elections. The bill also would amend the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 to provide for automatic voter registration.
US House Representatives Suzanne Bonamici and Peter Defazio
US House Representatives Suzanne Bonamici (BA ‘80, JD ‘83) and Peter Defazio (MA ‘77) are advocating to see Oregon’s voting standards duplicated the national level. Most recently, they have cosponsored the For the People Act of 2019 which follows Oregon’s lead of automatic voter registration, online registration, and vote-by-mail.

“Regrettably, what we've seen is the politicization of the election administration,” Hovland said. "Vote by mail has had widespread bipartisan support in the past, but unfortunately, what we may start to see is some states try to pass laws that make it harder to vote by mail. I think an important way to push back on that is to have bipartisan election officials who have successfully implemented these practices talk about the facts.”

Hovland points to the states of Washington and Oregon, whose Secretaries of State this year were Republicans. He also notes that the lieutenant-governor, the chief election official in Utah, is a Republican, and the previous governor of Colorado who implemented their vote by mail system was done under a Republican secretary of state.

He acknowledges that while election officials may have personal preferences, their job is to uphold and to protect the election process.

“Generally, like anyone else, I have preferred candidates whose platforms or positions I would prefer,” Hovland said. “But I don't care about that more than the process being fair and everybody getting to participate, everybody getting to make their voice heard, and then, ultimately, respecting the results.”

It is Hovland’s goal to continue to engage various voting groups and election officials around the country and share some of those best practices that were learned from states like Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Utah. He says that Oregon continues to be a gold standard for vote by mail ever since 1996 when Ron Wyden, JD ‘74, was the first US senator to be elected by mail-in votes.

A way forward: registration, engagement, and education

As the nation grapples with “election fatigue,” Hovland notes that national elections are just one part of the electoral process. It is important for the public to remain engaged because state, county, and municipal elections are just as important as national elections.

"Local leaders in our communities have a tremendous impact on our daily lives,” Hovland said. “Local initiatives, bond measures, school board issues - all of these things matter. Politics, in some ways, has gotten so nationalized that we focus on these big national issues, red versus blue states, and we forget about the all-around impact of the government on our lives.”

Ben Hovland

Whether national or local, Hovland believes that voter registration, engagement, and on-going education, are vital to holding successful democratic elections. He points out that it’s not only about getting registered, but also making sure that registrations are current.

He also wants the public to know that they can be a part of the process beyond voting on Election Day. To that end, he encourages people to serve as poll workers so that there are adequate voting locations so that those who want to can vote in person.

“I have served as a poll worker several times over the years,” Hovland said. “I describe it as being the customer service face of our democracy.”

When it comes to voter education, Hovland says that one of the key takeaways from this year’s elections is that people need more information and education about the entire election process.

He also points out that institutions like the University of Oregon and the School of Law are essential to the process. They are instrumental in educating the next generation of voters, as well as election administrators, lawyers, researchers, and voting rights activists.

“In the last 20 years, election law has really developed as a field,” Hovland said. “There aren't many of us that are election lawyers, but there are more than there used to be. Election law intertwines with the First Amendment and other Constitutional issues. Also, there is a tremendous amount of work happening now in the voting rights community. There are legal efforts to protect voting rights and to protect against voter suppression. Certainly, all of these things are opportunities for study or opportunities for engagement.”

Related articles

Oregon Law: Election 2020: Oregon Law alumni elected to key positions across the state and nation
Oregon Law: Several law alumni win Oregon’s primary nonpartisan elections
Oregon Law Review: Championed by Progressives and William U'Ren: Can Oregon Give the Ballot Initiative to the People Again? (Vol. 85, No. 1, p. 275-324); Hovland, Ben
Oregon Historical Society | Oregon Federal Bar Association: Episode 03: Election Law, Security, and the Impacts of Covid 19 with Chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Ben Hovland, with the Honorable Ann Aiken, U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Oregon

By Rayna Jackson, School of Law Communications