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The U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations approved $250 million in election security funding yesterday, ending a long wait for Senate action and setting up a negotiation with the House over what the final figure will be. FCW has more:
The Senate Appropriations Committee added $250 million in election security funding to a key spending bill with a bipartisan amendment at a Sept. 19 markup session.
While the lead sponsors of the amendment were the chair and ranking member of the committee, the green light for the measure came from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was quick to declare victory on the Senate floor.
“It is not all the money we requested, and it doesn’t include a single solitary reform that virtually everyone knows we need, but it’s a start,” Schumer said after the bill advanced committee. “Leader McConnell kept saying we don’t need the money. I made umpteen speeches here at this chair, and the Republican leader denied the need. But now, thank God, he has seen the light.”
The new figure, if approved by the full Senate, will set up a negotiation with House appropriators who approved a much larger figure earlier this year:
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, said at the committee meeting that the $250 million in grant funding will allow states to upgrade election infrastructure, buy new technology and improve cybersecurity.
The House of Representatives passed $600 million for election security grants in its appropriations bill.
Federal officials expressed support and talked about what’s next once the money is actually available:
Chris Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security, told reporters at a conference that the new funding represents “a great start.”
Krebs said paperless direct recording electronic voting machines are the leading weakness that should be addressed by state officials with the new grants. He also called for a regular funding stream that “states can set their budgeting clocks by” to, rather than “inconsistent mass injections of cash.”
Krebs explained that with regular funding, “you can hire people against it, you can execute long term IT service contracts” that would long-term benefits. He also pitched the idea of a joint “innovation lab” among states to conduct pilots around risk limiting audits and other measures.
Donald Palmer, a commissioner on the Election Assistance Commission, told FCW there are a number of things states can use the money for in the short term.
“Continuing the efforts on cybersecurity, protecting the voter registration systems and … refreshing the technology with new voting systems. Those are the three pillars, the three most important concepts and priorities,” Palmer told FCW on the sidelines of a Sept. 19 cybersecurity conference.
In particular, voter registration systems, which U.S. officials have said were targeted, probed and in some cases penetrated in all 50 states by Russian hackers in 2016, are “probably the most outward facing network that may be vulnerable,” he said.
At least one key Senator is concerned that states aren’t yet spending the money they have – though a colleague suggests that may be accounting, not inaction:
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) a co-sponsor of the Secure Elections Act that promotes information sharing between the intelligence community and states, didn’t oppose the amendment but cautioned members that strong oversight is necessary to make sure dollars are being spent wisely.
At the markup, Lankford noted that of the $380 million appropriated in 2018 for election security only $128 million has been spent, according to data from days ago. “I’ve yet to see a time that any state – including my state – has turned away federal dollars, especially when it has a 5% match from the state,” he said.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) suggested that Lankford may be quibbling about money that has been spent versus money that has been obligated to projects and contracts, adding that a $3 million grant to his state helped replace an aging election system.
“Given documented, repeated efforts by Russian military intelligence to interfere with our elections,” Coons said, “we would have great consequences” in 2020 if nothing is done to prepare now.
After lengthy delays and concerns that the Senate would never get moving, this amendment is an excellent start. Here’s hoping that the full Senate can approve this funding as quickly as possible so that negotiations with the House can begin and give states and localities more clarity on what resources will be available to them for election security in 2020 and beyond. Stay tuned …