Election security funds caught in crosshairs of spending debate

Funding to bolster election security efforts at the state level could become a sticking point during the ongoing government spending talks, with the House approving the funds while Republicans in the Senate remain staunchly opposed.

The spotlight will be on the Senate on Tuesday, as the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government marks up its portion of the annual spending bill, with the full committee due to vote on the bill Thursday. 

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While the subcommittee will wait until after the markup to release its version of the annual financial services and general government funding bill, which includes appropriations for the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), it’s unlikely to include election security funds due to Republican opposition.

This could become a factor in negotiations between the House and Senate over government funding bills and make it even more difficult for Congress to approve funding legislation prior to the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, which is needed to avert a shutdown.

The House already passed its version of the financial services and general government bill in June, which included $600 million for the EAC to distribute to states in order to “improve the administration of elections for Federal office, including to enhance election technology and make election security improvements.”

Despite strong support for election security funding for states from both House and Senate Democrats, the House version of the appropriations bill passed without a single Republican vote, and Republicans who hold the majority in the Senate look unlikely to include the funding in their version.

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, has been vocal in his opposition to including funding to bolster election security efforts in any funding bill from his panel. 

In a speech on the Senate floor last week, Kennedy argued that giving states funding for election security efforts could lead to a federal takeover of elections.

Kennedy said some of his Senate colleagues “want to get the federal government in charge of elections, and you know how you do that? You don’t just jump in and grab them, you sneak up on them, and I tell you how you sneak up on them, you start giving them money and you get them addicted, and you give them a little more money, and you get them addicted, and then the next thing you know, the feds are running the elections.”

Kennedy noted that there may be an effort during Senate deliberations to give states “$200 million, maybe $400 million, maybe $1 billion” for election security efforts, but did not comment on which of his Senate colleagues may push for these funding levels. 

One central reason for Kennedy’s objection to Congress approving election security funding is the $380 million appropriated to states through the EAC in 2018, which Kennedy noted has not all been spent. 

According to the EAC, these funds have been mostly designated by states to either replace outdated voting equipment or make cybersecurity enhancements. 

EAC Chairwoman Christy McCormick testified to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee in May that about 29 percent of the funds had been spent by states as of April 30, and that the EAC expects around 85 percent of the funds to be used prior to the 2020 elections. States have until the end of fiscal 2023 to use the funds.

Bipartisan state officials have asked for more funds to bolster election security efforts, with the secretaries of state of Connecticut and Louisiana recently calling on Congress for more money to protect elections against cyber threats. 

Other secretaries of state also called on Congress to provide their states with additional funding to secure elections at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing in February. 

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill (R) testified that “additional funding is imperative to ensure voting equipment can remain up-to-date and voting systems can remain secure to protect the data of those citizens,” while California Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D) said the $380 million was not “2016, 2018, or 2020 cybersecurity funding.”

In addition to requests from state officials, Senate Democrats have kept up sustained pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial McConnell: I doubt any GOP senator will vote to impeach Trump McConnell says he'll be in 'total coordination' with White House on impeachment trial strategy MORE (R-Ky.) to allow votes on a variety of Democratic-backed election security bills, many of which include funding for states to bolster election cybersecurity.

McConnell has refused to allow votes on the majority of these bills due to concerns around federalizing elections, although the Senate has approved legislation to make hacking voting systems a federal crime and to bar individuals who interfere or attempt to interfere in U.S. elections from entering the country. 

Both Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSenate confirms Trump's nominee to lead FDA CEO group pushes Trump, Congress on paid family, medical leave Krystal Ball: Is this how Bernie Sanders will break the establishment? MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerOn The Money: Lawmakers strike spending deal | US, China reach limited trade deal ahead of tariff deadline | Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst over new NAFTA Lawmakers strike spending deal to avert shutdown Vulnerable Democrats feel heat ahead of impeachment vote MORE (D-Md.) recently listed election security as top priorities for their fall agendas, with Hoyer noting the House may vote on further election security legislation. 

The strong effort by Democrats to pass election security legislation and funding to bolster state efforts in this area could make approving the annual financial services and general government spending bill, which also includes funds for the Treasury Department and the Judiciary, a problem. 

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Rep. Mike QuigleyMichael (Mike) Bruce QuigleyDemocrats vow court victories won't slow impeachment timeline Most US birds are facing extinction unless we take action Pelosi: Trump tweets on Yovanovitch show his 'insecurity as an imposter' MORE (D-Ill.), the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that originally included the $600 million for election security, told The Hill last week that Democratic support for election security funds during conferencing of the House and Senate appropriations bills will be “in the mix.”

“There are important things that we care about, election security is one of the big ones obviously,” Quigley said, adding that he would “stay optimistic” over Congress being able to pass appropriations bills and avoid a shutdown.

Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondBooker unveils legislation for federal bill to ban discrimination against natural hair Hillicon Valley: Senators ask Trump to halt Huawei licenses | Warren criticizes Zuckerberg over secret dinner with Trump | Senior DHS cyber official to leave | Dems offer bill on Libra oversight Senior DHS cyber official to step down MORE (D-La.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security cybersecurity subcommittee with jurisdiction over some election security elements, told The Hill that Republicans refusing to allocate election security funding would “give considerable heartburn” to the appropriations process. 

Both Quigley and Kennedy told The Hill that a continuing resolution (CR) will likely be passed in the Senate to avert a shutdown, which would continue current funding levels for a certain time period and give Congress more time to negotiate. 

Kennedy said that while a CR was not ideal, he would be “fine” to approve one if Democrats pushed back on election security funds. 

Quigley, on the other hand, said that he viewed a potential CR as “a failure” of Congress.

“I think even a CR is a failure, but beyond that going a whole year on a CR is a worse failure, and a catastrophe shutting down,” Quigley said.

Democrats’ election security concerns have been heightened in recent months by former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerJeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House panel debates articles of impeachment Trump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts MORE’s report on Russian interference during the 2016 presidential election. 

Among Mueller’s findings was that Russian actors launched a social media disinformation campaign designed to favor now-President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day MORE. Mueller also testified in July that he expects the Russians to attempt to interfere in the 2020 elections.