The once-obscure Election Assistance Commission, now at the center of several key election security debates, has powerful supporters in Congress as it seeks to increase funding.
For the first time in nearly a decade, the Election Assistance Commission has a full slate of commissioners in place. Now, with the agency sitting at the center of several key election security debates, they're asking Congress to make their budget whole too.
At a May 15 Senate Rules Committee hearing, Christy McCormick, who chairs the EAC, said the commission is at "a critical crossroads with regard to having sufficient resources necessary to better support state and local election administrators and the voters they serve" and asked members of Congress for more funding.
"With additional resources, the EAC would have the opportunity to fund additional election security activities within its election technology program," said McCormick. There is no shortage of ambition at EAC when it comes to supporting this work, but there is a stark shortage of funds for such activities."
EAC has responsibility for coordinating with state and local election officials and setting voluntary security standards for voting machines. But the role played by the tiny agency -- with several dozen employees and a $10 million budget -- can be overshadowed by larger agencies like the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
However, the EAC is racing to try and complete the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines 2.0, an updated set of technical standards for voting machines that states and election security experts say are vital to ensuring that the next generation of voting machines are less susceptible to hacking and sabotage.
On that front, both money and personnel are lacking.
The EAC's budget has been chopped in half over the past decade, and the Trump administration has proposed further cuts in its 2020 budget. Meanwhile, early work on developing the principals that will guide new voting machine standards was halted for 10 months between 2018 and 2019 while the agency operated without a quorum of commissioners. McCormick said the EAC doesn't have any full-time employees dedicated to election security work and only four full-time employees working on certification of voting machines, with one set to leave the agency at the end of the week.
Last month, a group of 31 Democratic Senators led by Rules Committee ranking member Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee urging them to fund the EAC at Fiscal 2009 levels, when it had nearly fifty employees and a budget of just under $18 million, citing cybersecurity as a top concern.
"Right now, we're taking from other parts of our mission to cover those areas that we are not funded to do," said McCormick. "We'd like to hire more staff and create more programs that would benefit the states and localities in supporting election security as well as everything else that's required under elections."
However, the EAC has also been criticized by outsiders for not doing enough to push election security improvements with the resources it does have. McCormick has expressed skepticism about the extent of Russian election interference in the 2016 election, saying in 2017 that the narrative was "calculated to create undue concern and worry among the public" and "smacks of partisan politics." Subsequent reporting has indicated that McCormick has since sought to downplay or dismiss the threat in private conversations with election officials and that election security was not considered a priority.
Since becoming EAC chair, McCormick has sounded a different tune and under questioning from Klobuchar said "we do acknowledge that Russia…has interfered in our elections in many different ways."