Democrats Press for Major Election Security Boost as Budget Battle Wages On

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, is leading a Democratic effort in the Senate to increase spending for federal election security assistance.
Photo: Carlos Osorio / AP

Dozens of Senate Democrats on Monday signed a letter urging a significant increase in election security funding that’s necessary, they say, for election officials to combat potential meddling in the 2020 presidential election, among other security concerns.

The letter comes amid a prolonged budgetary stalemate between House and Senate leaders, whose negotiations this weekend over a short-term spending bill reportedly failed, heightening the possibility of a government shutdown this Thursday. [Update: House lawmakers introduced a continuing resolution Monday afternoon with the aim of funding the government through December 20.]

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In the area of federal election security assistance, Democrats are seeking the “highest possible appropriation” to aid state and local agencies through grants to be disbursed by the Election Assistance Commission (EAC). Last year, Congress delivered $380 million, which the states divided up to pay for audits, voting equipment upgrades, and other security enhancements.

But a considerable gap now exists between how much Republicans and Democrats want to spend in 2020. The Democrat-controlled House appropriated $600 million in July, whereas, in September, the Senate Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government approved only $250 million. Politico reported on Monday that no progress has been made so far on any of the 12 annual spending bills for the new fiscal year, which began October 1.

The letter, released by Senators Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet and addressed to the leaders of the House and Senate appropriations committees, cites the July 2019 testimony of FBI Director Chris Wray, who said the Russian government is “absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections,” and the two Senate Intelligence Committee reports issued this year agreeing with that assessment.

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“We also learned that the election systems in two Florida counties were hacked by the Russians, and the Department of Homeland Security is conducting forensic analysis on computers used in North Carolina after it was revealed in the Mueller Report that a voting software company was hacked,” the letter says.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis revealed that the voter registration systems of two counties in the state had been in hacked in 2016, a fact he was alerted to by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he said. North Carolina’s systems came under added scrutiny due to a phrase in the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team, which referenced “installed malware” at an unidentified election technology vendor.

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“As you work to pass appropriations for FY20, we urge you to include the highest possible appropriation and to accept the strong requirements enumerated in the House bill,” the Senate Democrats’ letter says.

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The letter further addresses the shrinking of the—already puny—22-staff EAC itself, whose budget this year was less than half of what it was a decade ago.

In May, EAC Chair Christy McCormick pressed the Senate Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over elections, for additional funding, saying: “There is no shortage of ambition at EAC when it comes to supporting this work, but there is a stark shortage of funds for such activities.” The Democrats echo McCormick, saying commission, while “critical” in promoting election security, is “perennially understaffed and underfunded.”

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“A recent report by the Commission’s inspector general found that the agency’s budget for salaries and administration has fallen from a high of $18 million in 2010, to a mere $8 million in 2019, a decline made worse when accounting for inflation,” the letter says.

As with the hundreds of millions in grants it will disburse, the gap between the Senate and House budgets for the EAC is considerable (even though there’s far fewer dollars at stake). The House is aiming to give the agency $16.1 million, while the Senate budget is around $4.4 million less.

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Democrats say the difference is what will provide the EAC with “sufficient resources” to administer the grants while also carrying out its broad range of other election-related duties.

You can read a full copy of the letter here.

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Dell Cameron

Privacy, security, tech policy | Got a tip? Email: dell@gizmodo.com | Send me encrypted texts using Signal: (202)556-0846

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