Congress provided hundreds of millions of dollars to bolster the country’s electoral system against cyber attacks and other threats, but about two-thirds of the money was not spent just weeks before the presidential election of the last year.
A recently released federal report indicates that states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories had spent just over $ 255 million out of $ 805 million in election security grants until September 30 of last year, the latest figures available.
States have been given flexibility in how and when to spend their shares, as electoral concerns and potential vulnerabilities in voting systems vary widely across the country. Several election officials cited two main reasons for the slowness in spending: more than half of the money was not allocated until less than a year from the 2020 election, leaving election officials and officials with little time. state legislators to make major spending decisions. And the coronavirus pandemic has shaken up election planning last year, forcing officials to focus on safety at the ballot box and pivot to offer more early voting and postal voting.
“Security was always on everyone’s mind, but we had to make sure that the elections were held without there being a total collapse” said Don Palmer, chairman of the US Election Assistance Commission, which released the report.
A state-by-state snapshot the commission released last month shows that at the end of the federal fiscal year on September 30, when early voting had already taken place in the presidential election, the country’s 50 states plus the District of Columbia and five territories had spent about 31% of election security funding. The grant money has come in two pieces since 2018 under the Help America Vote Act.
Louisiana, one of the last states to use aging voting machines statewide without a paper trail, spent none of its $ 12.5 million election security grant ahead of the 2020 presidential election Its initial efforts to replace thousands of voting machines were scrapped amid controversy over the bid selection process.
In July, the Democratic governor of Louisiana and his Republican lawmakers agreed to a process requiring a verifiable paper trail for the voting system chosen by the GOP secretary of state.
In 2017, the federal government informed election officials in 21 states that hackers had targeted their systems ahead of the 2016 presidential election. The widespread nature of the attempts raised concerns at the time among some election officials and lawmakers, although being targeted did not mean that hackers had successfully penetrated electoral systems or were able to manipulate voter data or results.
North Dakota – one of the targeted states – has spent none of the $ 6 million it received in election security grants as of September 30. The state told the Election Assistance Commission in its own financial report that it had not purchased any voting equipment or carried out any security. training during the year. Instead, it was prioritizing other sources of funding that have expiration dates. North Dakota originally requested election security money to purchase a statewide digital scanning voting system and electronic poll books for every polling station in the state.
Former Special Advocate Robert Mueller report says Russian agents successfully compromised the Illinois State Council of Elections computer network in June 2016 and gained access to a voter registration database containing the information of millions of people. Yet, as of September 30, Illinois officials had spent less than 16% of the state’s $ 28.1 million in federal election security money. EAC commissioner Benjamin Hovland told lawmakers Illinois spending seemed low because the state was spending most of its money on a multi-year project called the Cyber Navigator Program, which aims to defend , detect and recover from cyber attacks.
Pennsylvania, a presidential battleground that was also among the targeted states in 2016, spent nearly 90% of its $ 28.6 million ahead of the 2020 election, mostly to replace voting machines. Other politically important states that were targeted – Arizona, Florida, and Wisconsin – spent about half of their money.
Hovland said the election grant money did not have expiration dates, explaining it was “the first real money” coming to the states for elections for a long time and people did not trust that there would be additional federal funding.
A review of state progress reports by commission staff revealed that a “Common activity” among the states was spending the money to audit the November presidential election. The report notes that Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa and many other states have some form of audit.
The agency’s 2020 report indicates that state spending on federal grants fell mainly into three categories: nearly 39% was used to perform cybersecurity upgrades; around 25% was invested in new voting material; and 11% went to upgrading voter registration databases.
In the 2020 general election, only 32 voting jurisdictions 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 did not have a verifiable paper trail in at least one of their jurisdictions.
Five states that in 2018 used voting machines that did not have paper backups had stopped using them before the 2020 general election. These were Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
The lack of consistent federal money for election security is likely one of the reasons many state election officials are reluctant to 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 was vice chairman of the now disbanded former President Donald Trump’s Election Fraud Commission, was the state’s top election official when Kansas received the first injection of what would ultimately total $ 9.3 million. None of that money was spent at the time.
Kobach said when the federal money arrived, the Legislature was not in session to provide the required matching funds. Under his successor, Scott Schwab, Kansas ended up using just $ 19,200 ahead of the 2020 election for testing and training to ensure election workers were using email in “A safe and secure way”.
State officials say they have since spent more than $ 3.4 million in grant funding, in part to bolster the security of the voter registration system statewide in Kansas and supplement its cybersecurity efforts.
Some states have chosen to keep federal money because the technology that appears to effectively secure elections now could be outdated in 10 years, said Danielle Root, election security expert at the Center for American Progress.
“Many states see securing elections as a marathon, not a race, and many states want to set aside some of this funding to update their systems as new threats and technological advancements emerge,” she said.