Congress is giving states a last-minute infusion of federal funds to help boost election security with voting in early caucus and primary states slated to begin in February.
Under a huge spending bill, states would receive $425 million for upgrading voting equipment, conducting post-election audits, cybersecurity training and other steps to secure elections. To receive the funds, states must match 20% of their allocation. The Senate approved the bill Thursday, sending it to President Donald Trump for his signature.
States have been scrambling to shore up their systems ahead of the 2020 election. The nation’s intelligence chiefs have warned that Russia and others remain interested in attempting to interfere in U.S. elections and undermine democracy.
For many who have been advocating for more congressional action on election security, the money is welcome, but they say more must still be done to ensure elections are secure. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, has been among those pushing Congress to require states to implement rigorous post-election audits and use paper ballots in exchange for federal funds.
“I’m afraid this bill will widen the gulf between states with good election security and those with perilously weak election security,” Wyden said in a statement. “I appreciate the intent behind this provision, but until Congress takes steps to secure the entire election system, our democracy will continue to be vulnerable to foreign interference.”
It’s the second batch of federal funds sent to states since the 2016 election, when Russian agents targeted voting systems across the country. Authorities say there has been no evidence that any vote tallies or voter data was changed. U.S. officials say Russians also stole Democratic emails and conducted am extensive social media campaign to support Trump's candidacy and add to the divisiveness in U.S. elections.
The funds were a compromise after Democrats pushed for more money and advocates pressured Senate Republicans, who were initially resistant to send any additional funding. Republicans had said they wanted to see how states spent the first batch of federal funds, but later relented. Combined, states will have received $805 million from the federal government since 2016.
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said election officials appreciate Congress' help, but added that "while this new batch of funding is needed and welcomed, ongoing and sustainable funding from the federal government to help states fight external threats to election security is still badly needed.”
The state previously used federal funds for a full-time election security position as well as to support counties by covering system upgrades, risk and vulnerability assessments and training. Future funds, Toulouse Oliver said, will likely be used for equipment upgrades, hiring IT staff, election audits and more training.
A key concern for election security advocates has been voting machines, which in many parts of the country are outdated and need to be replaced. A survey last year by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law found officials in 33 states said they must replace their voting machines by 2020. Many voting systems rely on software and hardware that is no longer supported by manufacturers.
In addition, some counties and states continue to use electronic touchscreen voting machines that experts say are not only vulnerable to hacking, but have no paper backups should they fail.
It’s unlikely the most recent influx of federal funds can be spent on replacing many of these machines because it can take months to request bids, decide on a vendor, acquire the equipment, test it, deploy it and train workers to use it. But experts say the money can be used quickly to implement audits to ensure the accuracy of election results, hire cybersecurity personnel, hold cybersecurity training and buy additional equipment to defend their systems.
Experts have urged Congress to build election security funds into the annual budget, so officials could plan for equipment upgrades and other election security priorities.
“The way Congress has been addressing election security is the Band-Aid approach; whenever they get sufficient pressure they spit out some money,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the Electoral Reform Program at the Brennan Center. “But it’s not the way to be approaching election security. Congress should be a full partner in this.”
The federal funds will be distributed by a formula that takes into account the voting-age population within each state.
As the largest states, California would be expected to receive $39 million in federal funds, while Texas would receive $26.2 million, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center and Verified Voting. Alaska, Delaware, the District of Columbia, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming would receive $3 million each.
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