Congress allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to shore up the country’s electoral system against cyberattacks and other threats, but about two-thirds of the money went unspent just weeks before last year’s presidential election.
A recent federal report said the states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Territories had spent just over $ 255 million of $ 805 million on election security grants as of September 30th last year, the latest numbers available.
States have been given leeway in how and when to spend their shares as electoral concerns and potential weaknesses in electoral systems vary widely. Several election officials cited two main reasons for the slow pace of spending: More than half of the money was not allocated until the 2020 elections were less than a year away, leaving election officials and state lawmakers little time to make key spending decisions. And the coronavirus pandemic turned last year’s election planning on its head, forcing officials to focus on election security and seek earlier voting and postal voting.
“Security was still on everyone’s lips, but it was being pushed into the background to make sure the elections go without a total collapse,” said Don Palmer, chairman of the US Electoral Commission, which published the report.
A State-by-state snapshot The commission, released last month, shows that the state’s 50 states plus the District of Columbia and five territories at the end of the federal fiscal year on September 30, when the early voting was already in the presidential election, accounted for around 31% of the funding for election security. The grant money has come in two servings since 2018 under the Help America Vote Act.
US Electoral Aid Commission
A breakdown of electoral security funds by state in the Election Assistance Commission report shows Colorado spent $ 1 million of the $ 13.5 million in federal funds it received through September 30, 2020.
Louisiana, one of the last states to deploy aging paper-free voting machines nationwide, did not spend any of its $ 12.5 million in electoral security grants prior to the 2020 presidential election. Its initial efforts to replace thousands of voting machines were halted amid controversy over the selection process.
In July, the Democratic governor of Louisiana and his Republican lawmakers agreed on a process a verifiable paper trail required for any electoral system chosen by the GOP foreign minister.
In 2017, the federal government informed election officials in 21 states that hackers targeted their systems ahead of the 2016 presidential election. The spread of the attempts caused concern among some electoral officials and lawmakers at the time, even though the hackers failed to break into electoral systems or manipulate voter data or results.
North Dakota – one of the target states – did not spend any of the $ 6 million it received in electoral security grants as of September 30. The state told the Election Assistance Commission in its own financial report that it did not purchase any election equipment and did not conduct any security training during the year. Instead, other funding sources with expiration dates were prioritized. North Dakota originally applied for polling bail to purchase a nationwide digital scan voting system and electronic polling books for every polling location in the state.
Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report says that in June 2016, Russian activists successfully compromised the Illinois State Board of Elections computer network and gained access to a voter registration database containing the information of millions of people. By September 30, however, Illinois officials had spent less than 16% of the $ 28.1 million in bail money for the federal election. EAC Commissioner Benjamin Hovland told lawmakers that Illinois spending seemed low as the state spent most of its money on a multi-year project called the Cyber Navigator Program, which aims to defend, detect, and stay away from cyber attacks to recover them.
Pennsylvania, a presidential battlefield that was also one of the target states in 2016, spent nearly 90% of its $ 28.6 million prior to the 2020 elections mainly on replacing voting machines. Other politically important states that were targeted – Arizona, Florida, and Wisconsin – spent about half of their money.
Hovland said the electoral grant money had no expiration date and said it was “the first real money” to come into the states for elections in a long time, and people had no confidence that there would be additional federal funding .
A review of state progress reports by Commission officials found that a “joint activity” among states was to spend the money on examining the November presidential election. The report found that Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, and many other states are planning some form of audit.
According to the agency’s 2020 report, state spending on federal grants fell into three main categories: nearly 39% went to cybersecurity upgrades; approx. 25% were invested in new voting machines; and 11% updated voter registration databases.
During the 2020 general election, only 32 constituencies across the country relied on paperless voting machines. Nine states – Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Texas – used electronic voting machines that had no verifiable paper trail in at least one of their territories.
Five states that had used voting machines without paper backup in 2018 had stopped using them by the 2020 general election. These were Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.
The lack of consistent federal money for election security is likely a reason why many electoral officials in the state don’t spend their federal grants, said Lawrence Norden, director of electoral reform at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who served as vice chairman of former President Donald Trump’s now-defunct electoral fraud commission, was the top electoral officer in the state when Kansas received the first infusion, ultimately worth $ 9.3 million. Nothing of this money was spent at the time.
Kobach said that when the federal money arrived, lawmakers did not meet to provide the necessary matching funds. Under his successor, Scott Schwab, Kansas spent only $ 19,200 on testing and training prior to the 2020 election to ensure electoral staff were using email “safely and securely”. State officials say they have since spent more than $ 3.4 million of grant funding, in part to improve the security of the Kansas statewide voter registration system and to complement cybersecurity efforts.
Some states have chosen to keep the federal money because the technology that now appears to be effective in securing elections could be out of date in 10 years, said Danielle Root, an electoral security expert with the Center for American Progress.
“Many states view the elections as a marathon rather than a race, and many states want to reserve some of that funding to update their systems as new threats and technological advances emerge,” she said.
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