State election officials seek more security money, fewer mandates

For more secure election equipment to be available for the 2020 vote, Congress needs to act in 2019, state officials say.

digital vote (MaxxiGo/Shutterstock.com)
 

State election officials want Congress to deliver more funding for election security with fewer strings attached.

At the Feb. 2 National Association for Secretaries of State annual winter conference, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill asked authors of the Secure Elections Act to be open to the idea of block granting federal funds for equipment upgrades "through applications from the states who know our states, our counties and our communities best."

The House Democratic majority is preparing to vote on H.R. 1, a massive campaign and election reform bill with a number of security-related provisions, including requirements for election equipment vendors. The Republican-controlled Senate is working out final details before reintroducing the Secure Elections Act in the next few weeks.

While some state officials, like California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, backed more proscriptive federal efforts, many other state officials echoed Merrill's request.

In the past, Jim Condos, Vermont Secretary of State and former NASS president, has argued for annual, mostly unrestricted federal funding to purchase new machines. He said it's important that Congress work out and pass a legislative package this year in order to have equipment in place before the 2020 presidential election.

"If you're going to get money to the states, it doesn't help us to do it in the middle of a presidential election year," said Condos. "We're not going to have time between January and November of next year to do a whole lot of changes, [so] in order for that money to be spent, it really has to be done this year."

That may not happen. A new version of the Secure Elections Act will be released in the next few weeks, according to Jacob Barton, a staffer on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, and Lindsey Kerr, minority chief counsel for the Senate Rules Committee. The legislation is likely to be nearly identical to the version of that Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) released last year, but Barton said it will not contain additional grant funding, and any section around auditing will be voluntary.  

In a twist, the two parties appear to have flipped positions on whether to put hard mandates on future federal grants. Even as congressional Democrats mostly led the charge to include provisions in earlier versions of the Secure Elections Act mandating paper backups and post-election audits, Kerr told FCW that at the end of the day, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and other Democrats view more money to states -- with or without strings attached -- as key to improving the overall security environment around voting machines and elections.

Some Republicans in Congress don't want to approve more grant money until they learn more about how states spent the $380 million in leftover Help America Vote Act funds appropriated last year.

"There has been some analysis of how that money has been spent, but it has not been compared with all the resident expertise with respect to where the current threats are and the future threats that we anticipate in the coming years and the coming elections," said Barton.

States have provided plans for how they intend to spend their portion to the Election Assistance Commission, and Vermont's Condos said detailed procurement plans were also submitted by many states.

Even if H.R. 1 and the Secure Elections Act fail, that may not mark the end of the debate in Congress. Kerr indicated that Klobuchar intends to offer a number of standalone election-security-specific bills to the Senate culled from language in H.R. 1, where they may get more interest and traction when separated from the rest of the package.

Jackie Barber, Kerr's Republican counterpart on the Senate Rules Committee, said members were interested in looking at other legislative ideas and proposals floating around Capitol Hill that would boost election security. After the panel, Barber told FCW that given Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) opposition to H.R. 1, it is unlikely that the Senate would wait for the House to vote on the bill before considering other alternatives.

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