States struggle with unreliable federal funding to ensure election security

WASHINGTON — The federal government has been trying for years to enhance election security through a popular grant program, but wildly fluctuating funding levels have made it arduous for state officials to plan budgets and projects.

Growing misinformation and misinformation about the election, often fueled by conspiracy theories as well as threats against election workers, make the grants especially crucial, according to election officials.

House Republicans, however, are moving to eliminate funding for election security grants — known as the Help America Vote Act or HAVA grants — from this year’s appropriations process, something they also tried unsuccessfully last year.

“We continue to unnecessarily jeopardize the integrity of our elections and American democracy,” Georgia Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop said Thursday during committee debate on the funding bill.

Bishop, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, expressed “concern about outdated and unsafe voting systems across the country that pose a very, very serious threat to our national security and our democratic system.”

“It is irresponsible to ignore the alarm,” Bishop added. “Our nation’s electoral systems are currently and continually under attack by foreign actors who threaten our democratic values.”

The bill was approved by the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee, with no appropriations earmarked.

Gideon Cohn-Postar, legislative director at Issue One & Issue One Action, told States Newsroom that while grants have traditionally been awarded bipartisanly, several factors have influenced support for the program in recent years.

“It remains something that many Republicans in the House and Senate support,” Cohn-Postar said. “But I think it also got caught up in some of the election misinformation that started to spread in 2020.”

Former President Donald Trump, now the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, did just that he continued to claim false information that the 2020 election was stolen.

Issue One writes on its website that the organization seeks to “unite Republicans, Democrats and independents in a movement to fix our broken political system and build an inclusive democracy that works for all.”

Grant funding is decreasing

Congress approved $55 million in election security grants during the last appropriations process, which ended this spring. The action followed a conference of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which proposed zero dollars, with the Democratic-controlled Senate, which proposed $75 million in funding.

The final funding level was a decrease from the $75 million approved by Congress for both fiscal years 2023 and 2022.

Congress did not authorize any election grant funding in the annual appropriations bill for fiscal year 2021. But that came after lawmakers allocated $425 million in the previous year’s bill and an additional $400 million in one emergency spending bill related to the Covid-19 pandemic. 19. bills.

Cohn-Postar said several states have tried to make HAVA grants last longer than a year by spending less than they receive or saving money for larger projects.

For example, Louisiana has not spent any of its election security grant funds since 2018 in preparation for changing its election system. New Hampshire has passed a state law that collects grant funds as an endowment and then spends only a portion of it each year.

But “prudent” budgeting and uncertainty about how much funding Congress might provide next year have led federal lawmakers to be skeptical of states’ apply of the grants, Cohn-Postar said.

“The key thing we found… is that about half of the states have only spent half of their HAVA grants,” Cohn-Postar said. “And it comes up in every conversation Congress has about these grants. They say, “Hey, why should we appropriate more if you haven’t spent it?”

Congress, he said, sometimes uses states’ “careful and thoughtful budgeting” as an excuse not to give them money.

Republicans in Congress also want to reduce overall federal spending and have made cuts to many of the dozen annual spending bills, including the Financial Services Act, which includes HAVA grants.

‘Extremely crucial’ in Maine

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said in an interview that the grants “were extremely important, especially in the absence of sustained election funding from the federal government.”

“Over the last few years, we have seen a rapid evolution in cybersecurity threats and threats to election infrastructure,” Bellows said. “As threats evolve, our preparedness must change. Election security grants are fundamental to our ability to invest in improvements to our central voter registration system and that system’s cybersecurity protections.”

Congress’ inability or unwillingness to create a predictable, stable funding program for states to administer federal elections is “unfortunate,” she said.

“We are very proud that Maine has always enjoyed safe, free and secure elections,” Bellows said. “But make no mistake, the lack of consistent, ongoing federal funding is a potential future vulnerability.”

Washington State Elections Director Stuart Holmes said in an interview that he plans his annual budget to not receive HAVA grants for election security and is pleasantly surprised when Congress actually provides the funding.

“In my entire career, only two rounds of HAVA have represented a significant election investment,” Holmes said. “So receiving an extra million dollars at the beginning of the year is a substantial surprise. But this makes it almost impossible to prepare and plan anything if you need to spend it.

The grants do not expire at the end of the fiscal year and the federal government does not recoup unspent funds, allowing states to take a different approach to using the money.

Holmes told States Newsroom that the funding approved in fiscal year 2020 allowed the state to “build an entire team of cybersecurity professionals who will be committed to protecting our infrastructure.”

“In Washington state, we have a centralized voter registration and election management system, and we have never before had specialized election specialists watching the logs, preparing our system, testing our system, and collaborating with other specialists to conduct testing,” he added. said Holmes. “So we are in a better position than ever before.”

Still, he said, “local election officials are certainly looking forward to a stable source of funding from the federal government for federal elections.”

New Hampshire Election Fund

New Hampshire Secretary of State David M. Scanlan said that when Congress passed the HAVA program in 2002, he stated that the funding was intended primarily to create a statewide voter registration database, ensure voting equipment was available at every polling place, provide election workers training and create educational programs for voters.

The New Hampshire Legislature then ordered the secretary of state to apply Congress’ initial allocation to meet the requirements and then apply the remaining money to create an election fund.

Originally, the Secretary of State could allocate one-twelfth of the total funds in the account for the annual maintenance costs of federal mandates, but now it is one-twelfth of the total fund amount.

“New Hampshire has done a good job with the money it has, but there is no doubt that these funds have helped us implement security measures for our electronic systems,” Scanlan said.

The state, he said, used its federal election security grants to hire vendors who specialize in ensuring the security of electronic systems.

When New Hampshire created a novel voter registration database, the state used the funds to make sure the software didn’t contain any nefarious content.

“We’ve really made sure that the systems we build are clean and that there’s nothing malicious lurking in the shadows,” Scanlan said. “We have taken some really good steps that give me real confidence that our systems are in good shape.”

Advocating for “consistent, reliable federal funding”

J.P. Martin, deputy director of communications for the Arizona Secretary of State, declined States Newsroom’s request to speak with the secretary of state, offering only written answers to questions about the HAVA election security grant.

Martin wrote in an email that “fluctuating levels of federal funding have significantly impacted our strategic planning and budgeting.”

“Uncertainty about future allocations forces us to be cautious in our spending, focusing on priorities such as strengthening security measures for physical voting equipment,” Martin wrote. “For example, securing equipment in cages – currently requiring a truck equipped with a tailgate due to their increased weight – demonstrates the challenges of managing technological and budget constraints with limited HAVA funding.”

Congress’ refusal to provide future election security grants “could significantly strain Arizona’s election infrastructure,” he wrote.

“The state is currently in a hiring freeze and we remain focused on supporting counties, especially with recent changes such as the primary election date and laws extending ballot validity to weekends,” Martin wrote. “We are prioritizing increased cybersecurity training and advocating for consistent, reliable federal funding to ensure the smooth conduct of elections, underscoring the need for continued financial support from Congress.”

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