According to the Census Bureau, there were approximately 245 million voting age citizens in 2016. Of those, approximately 158 million were registered to vote. The total cost to effectively secure elections in our country is projected to be about $2.15 billion over the next five years. This means the federal government can effectively secure its 2020 presidential election against foreign interference for just $13.67 per registered voter.
In 2018, Congress spent $2.43 per registered voter with $380 million to help states and territories begin to harden their election infrastructure through the Help America Vote Act. It was the first such allocation since 2010. Today, Congress could replace aging election machines and provide enhanced cybersecurity in the voting process for the next four years by appropriating an additional $500 million. That is the good news on this.
The bad news is that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to allow his chamber to vote on any one of the sensible, often bipartisan, election security bills now dying in the Senate. Bipartisan legislation such as the Deter Act, the Voting System Cybersecurity Act, and the Honest Ads Act, which would require online political ads to provide the same disclosure requirements as political ads on television and other media, languish in committee, each likely destined to fall silently and uselessly off the agenda. These important changes would go beyond merely throwing money at the problem by reforming election security systems to make people, states, and the federal government more resilient to hackers.
To the charge of inaction, McConnell thrusts the Help America Vote Act money as both a sword and a shield. On offense, McConnell says the states have not yet exhausted the $380 million Congress originally allocated. While technically true, that statistic is misleading. In the nonpartisan Election Assistance Commission annual report, it noted the collective “failure” of the states to spend its federal grant money.
It turns out those funds were allocated a mere 77 days prior to the 2018 midterm elections and were used primarily for more staff training rather than for cybersecurity enhancements or new voting machines with paper ballot backups, according to the individually created plans of the states. More importantly, the Election Assistance Commission explained that officials around the country were hoping Congress would consider the $380 million as a “down payment” rather than a “one time solution.”
On defense, McConnell points to the Help America Vote Act money, claiming that any more allocation or federal oversight would infringe on state rights. In other words, he is arguing federalism concerns preclude asserting additional control over the conduct of federal elections by the states. While real in a distant hypothetical sense, these fears are also grossly exaggerated, as each state is permitted to draft its own election security plan, which Help America Vote Act dollars will then fund.
Though McConnell describes the additional costs as prohibitive, in an era in which both the Trump administration and Senate Republicans have embraced $1 trillion annual deficits during an expansionary business cycle, securing elections in our country for about than 0.2 percent of that amount renders any such fiscal argument brazenly disingenuous.
FBI Director Christopher Wray has testified that foreign targeting of election infrastructure to obtain personal information, disrupt elections, and undermine voter confidence is expected next year. Former special counsel Robert Mueller famously testified to his belief that the Russians are actively seeking ways to interfere in the 2020 election “as we sit here.”
In response to such an overt and identifiable threat to our democracy, it is beyond time for Senate Republicans, and most especially McConnell, to protect our most sacred right to confidence in free and fair elections, especially when practical policy solutions exist at reasonable cost.
Chris Gagin is an attorney and adviser to Republicans for the Rule of Law.