US states and territories given $380 million in combined federal funds for election upgrades last year only spent 8.1% of that money in the first six months it was available, the agency responsible for distributing the funds said on Thursday.
That money was distributed as part of a 2018 bill, which was passed after Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen warned it is a “national security concern” that US elections can’t be audited with paper ballots.
Security experts have in recent years called for major elections to have a physical paper trail so a trustworthy audit can be performed.
However, brands and types of voting equipment vary by state. Many states use some machines that don’t leave a paper trail, and five states are entirely paperless for the general population.
The report from the US Election Assistance Commission only tracked spending through September 2018, and many states have since spent or plan to spend some of their money on cybersecurity features or staff or upgraded equipment that badly needs replacing.
Ben Hovland, the EAC’s vice chair, said that he was heartened by some states’ decision to spend money on beefing up their cybersecurity. Illinois, for instance, has created a plan for a dedicated cybersecurity program to help counties and districts that might struggle with security. But he admitted states had limited ability to quickly make major changes.
“The EAC got the money out (the) door very quickly, which is what Congress wanted and was great,” Hovland told CNN. “But the reality of the timetable was we were already in the middle of the 2018 cycle. It varies by state, but procurement timetables are not fast.”
But the fact that states didn’t move more quickly to upgrade their aging machines reflects the complexities of upgrading US infrastructure, especially when the process is controlled by a litany of state and local governments, said Lawrence Norden, who monitors election equipment for the Brennan Center.
“If you want to replace voting machines, in most states that money is a drop in the bucket. It’s not going to replace them statewide. It can go toward a fund that can eventually be used to replace the equipment, which it looks like a number of states did,” Norden told CNN. “They’re setting it aside to do that.”
Norden, like many experts, has called on Congress to allocate far more money for elections. Last year’s $380 million was the first new allocation of new money since 2002, when, in the aftermath of the controversial 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which authorized $3.65 billion over a period of eight years.
“You’re only talking six months,” Norden said. “We want them to spend it wisely, given that this money isn’t going to cover everything.”
Election security became a hot-button issue after 2016, when Russia engaged in a multi-pronged effort to interfere in the US election, including sending phishing emails to county election officials and breaking into a voter registration database, though there were no known instances of foreign government hackers affected polls on election day. While US officials said there’s no evidence Russia mounted a similar campaign in the 2018 midterms, they expect a renewed effort in 2020.
The slow pace of election equipment upgrades raises questions over how much can be upgraded by next year’s presidential elections.
“Congress’s decision to appropriate additional HAVA (Help America Vote Act) money one year ago to strengthen election security was the right thing to do, but today we clearly see the gap between what states need and the expenditures so far,” said Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, a nonprofit that advocates for voting machine integrity.
“Much more work needs to be done to protect American elections,” she said.