Congress

Election officials want security money, flexible standards

After 2016 Russian intrusion, slow progress seen toward securing rolls and paper ballots

Voters line up at a temporary voting location in a trailer in the Arroyo Market Square shopping center in Las Vegas on the first day of early voting in Nevada in October of 2016. Louisiana and Connecticut officials requested more money and clear standards from the federal government before voters head to the polls in 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

State officials from Louisiana and Connecticut on Thursday asked for more money and clear standards from the federal government to help secure voting systems before the 2020 elections.

But the officials, Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, stressed the differences between their election systems and asked for leeway from the federal government in deciding how to spend any future funding.

[North Carolina redo election is the last race of 2018 — and the first of 2020]

“The cultures are different and the voters have different expectations,” Ardoin told commissioners from the federal Election Assistance Commission, or EAC, at a public forum.

Both states received federal funds to upgrade cyber and physical security of their voting systems after Congress approved $380 million for election security in 2018. They spent their share of those funds differently. 

Connecticut has put much of its funding toward training, Merrill said, while Louisiana is scrambling to upgrade systems running Windows 7 to Windows 10 before Microsoft stops offering support for the older operating system in January.

Ginny Badanes, the director of Microsoft’s Defending Democracy Program, which is working to help both states and companies that build voting machines and software to prepare for the switch in operating systems, said the company “will do whatever it takes to make sure these customers have access to updates that are straightforward and affordable.”

Both the state officials and private sector witnesses urged the commission to adopt and publish standards that would set the best practices for election security.

“We’re at a point where we’re going to need to update these systems in the next few years,” said Merrill. “Hustle up with those certification standards because people are out buying things right now and they need help.”

Ardoin, of Louisiana, urged the commission to ensure that its guidance remains nonpartisan, perhaps a reference to a tweet by President Donald Trump earlier in the week that said “no debate on election security should go forward without first agreeing that [voter identification] must play a very strong part in any final agreement.”

Voter identification is a priority for some Republican officials, who say it is needed to prevent fraudulent voting, though they lack evidence that such a problem alters election results. Democrats have opposed voter identification, calling it an attempt at voter suppression.

Ellen Weintraub, who chairs the Federal Election Commission, dismissed Trump’s tweet and said, “it’s well past time to get serious about defending democracy from real threats identified by national security experts.” 

Russians “were impersonating Americans on Facebook, not in person at [the] polls,” Weintraub tweeted in response to Trump. “Support the bipartisan bills that will protect our 2020 elections.”

Slow progress

States are making some progress toward implementing best practices ahead of the 2020 cycle. Federal intelligence and law enforcement authorities concluded hackers working for the Russian military tried to infiltrate state voter databases in 2016. Among others, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the National Academy of Sciences have recommended states work to thwart interference through broader use of paper ballots and post-election audits.

A report released Tuesday by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University estimated 16 million voters would cast paperless ballots in 2020, down from 27.5 million in 2016. 

Forty-two states should have paper backups by 2020, the report said, though 17 of them will not require a post-election audit. Voters in eight states — Louisiana, New Jersey, Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Kansas and Mississippi — are likely to still use paperless machines.

“While there has been substantial progress in securing voting machines since 2016, there is still more to do ahead of 2020,” the Brennan Center report said. “We should replace antiquated equipment, and paperless equipment in particular, as soon as possible.”

On Thursday morning, a federal judge in Georgia ruled that the state must phase out its paperless machines prior to its presidential primary in March 2020. The state was already planning on the move, according to the Brennan Center, but the ruling could have consequences for other states that are more resistant.

Senate stalemate

In response to the Brennan Center’s report, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic presidential candidate who sponsored bipartisan election security legislation last year with Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., called 16 million paperless ballots “unacceptable.”

“When we can’t go back and verify election results with paper records, it diminishes Americans’ confidence in our elections and it makes us vulnerable to attack from foreign adversaries,” she said in a statement.

Senate Democrats, including Klobuchar, spent much of the summer unsuccessfully pushing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring up House-passed election security legislation (HR 2722). Critics went as far as calling the Kentucky Republican “Moscow Mitch,” insinuating that not passing a bill would enable further interference by the Kremlin.

In late July, McConnell blocked an attempt to force a vote on the House bill that would require the use of paper ballots and boost funding for election security and infrastructure. McConnell bristled at critics who called the act treasonous and said, “every single member of the Senate agrees that Russian meddling was real and is real.”

McConnell has said his position is rooted in his belief in states’ rights, arguing he doesn’t believe the federal government should tell states how to conduct elections.

Merrill, the Connecticut secretary of state, described similar rifts at the state and local level, underscoring the challenge of securing elections conducted by a diverse landscape of governments.

“I’ve had many a fight with mayors about this issue,” she said.

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report. 

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