Current Status of America’s Election System: Full Agenda, Empty Pockets

[Image via ihatethewayyoueatcereal]

Politico had a long, well-researched article over the weekend entitled “Cash-strapped states brace for Russian hacking fight” which looks at the current state of the various debates across the country on election security. It’s worth a click and a read – but the overall takeaway is one that is concerning and more than a little dispiriting.

In short, the piece found that while there is a broad consensus on the need to upgrade the nation’s election system, that consensus evaporates when the time comes to discuss who will pay for it:

The U.S. needs hundreds of millions of dollars to protect future elections from hackers — but neither the states nor Congress is rushing to fill the gap.

Instead, a nation still squabbling over the role Russian cyberattacks played in the 2016 presidential campaign is fractured about how to pay for the steps needed to prevent repeats in 2018 and 2020, according to interviews with dozens of state election officials, federal lawmakers, current and former Department of Homeland Security staffers and leading election security experts.

These people agree that digital meddlers threaten the public’s confidence in America’s democratic process. And nearly everyone believes that the danger calls for collective action — from replacing the voting equipment at tens of thousands of polling places to strengthening state voter databases, training election workers and systematically conducting post-election audits.

But those steps would require major spending, and only a handful of states’ legislatures are boosting their election security budgets, according to a POLITICO survey of state election agencies. And leaders in Congress are showing no eagerness to help them out.

Some of this is fiscal in nature:

“States ought to get their own money up,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which oversees federal elections. “We’re borrowing money. We got a big debt limit coming up.”

And, as we’ve seen, some of it is resistance to a stronger federal role in elections:

States are largely united, though, in wishing for more dollars from Washington. Of the 33 states that responded to POLITICO’s survey, 21 — red, blue and purple — called for the federal government to authorize new funds to strengthen election security or replace voting machines. Five said they were open to it if the money came with no strings attached. But some were realistic about the likelihood of Congress opening its wallet anytime soon.

“If we want to enhance people’s confidence in our elections, Congress absolutely should secure funding for the modernization and securing of voting systems,” said Nicole Lagace, communications director for the Rhode Island Department of State.

“Don’t see that in our future, however!” Delaware Election Commissioner Elaine Manlove said by email.

Georgia, North Dakota and Utah opposed the idea. “The last thing we need to do is create more government bureaucracy and throw federal money at a problem when the states can devise a solution,” said a statement from Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who had earlier criticized the Obama administration’s offer of help to secure the 2016 election.

This resistance also emerges in the ongoing effort to de-fund and eliminate the U.S. Election Assistance Commission:

[T]he EAC may not even exist by the 2018 election. House Republicans are trying to defund the agency, insisting that it is ineffective and outdated and could easily be consolidated into the Federal Elections Commission, which oversees compliance with campaign finance laws.

“The EAC has nothing to do with hacking,” said Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), chairman of the House committee that oversees elections. “Cybersecurity, that is not, was never, in their message or mission.”

While some states are trying to move to fill the gap, the overall environment reminds me of the old joke about the weather: policymakers all like to talk about election systems, but no one wants to do (or spend) anything about it. Quite simply, widespread progress is impossible in this arena without some commitment to a funding plan – and at present, none seems imminent. Talk is cheap – but progress won’t be. I’m hoping a consensus on funding for states and localities’ election systems can emerge before the next big crisis (and there will be another crisis – there always is), but right now that feels more like optimism than prediction.

Cross your fingers – and stay tuned …

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