Senate committee approves $250 million for state election security efforts

Senate committee approves $250 million for state election security efforts
© Greg Nash

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved $250 million to help states improve election security as part of the annual 2020 financial services and general government funding bill. 

The funding was the result of a bipartisan amendment to the bill primarily sponsored by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyHouse pushes back schedule to pass spending bills Top Republican says Trump greenlit budget fix for VA health care GOP senators not tested for coronavirus before lunch with Trump MORE (R-Ala.), ranking member Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyHouse punts on FISA, votes to begin negotiations with Senate House cancels planned Thursday vote on FISA Frustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  MORE (D-Vt.) and Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsVoting rights, public health officials roll out guidelines to protect voters from COVID-19 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US virus deaths exceed 100,000; Pelosi pulls FISA bill Warren's VP bid faces obstacle: Her state's Republican governor MORE (D-Del.).

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The overall bill with the amendment included was approved unanimously by the committee. The election security funding amendment includes a clause that requires states to provide a 5 percent match to the federal funds within two years to increase election security.

The funds will be given to the states by the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), which has 45 days after the overall funding bill is signed into law to distribute the money.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump tweets as tensions escalate across US This week: Senate reconvenes as protests roil nation amid pandemic For city parks: Pass the Great American Outdoors Act now MORE (R-Ky.), who has blocked the majority of election security efforts in the Senate, citing concerns they could cause elections to be federalized, also co-sponsored the amendment.

McConnell announced the measure ahead of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s markup of the spending bill on Thursday, noting he was “proud” to co-sponsor the funds.

“The Trump administration has made enormous strides to help states security their elections without giving Washington new power to push the states around,” McConnell said. “That’s how we continued the progress we saw in 2018, and that’s exactly what we’re doing." 

Senate Democrats have stepped up pressure on McConnell to address election security issues in the wake of former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s testimony in July that he expected the Russians to interfere in the U.S. elections in 2020. Democrats led a “day of action” earlier this week.

Mueller found in his report that Russian actors pursued a sustained campaign to interfere in the 2016 presidential election through both hacking and social media disinformation operations. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerJudd Gregg: Biden — a path to the presidency, or not Montana barrels toward blockbuster Senate fight Federal judges should be allowed to be Federalist Society members MORE (D-N.Y.) said in a statement that the new election security funds are “a step in the right direction.” 

“It is significant that Sen. McConnell and Republicans have finally backed down and acknowledged the Senate must act to secure our elections from foreign interference,” Schumer said in a statement. “The agreed to funding in Senate Appropriations will also put Democrats in a stronger position to secure even higher funding levels in a conference negotiation.”

Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinFrustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  Senate Democrat introduces bill to protect food supply Democratic unity starts to crack in coronavirus liability reform fight MORE (D-Ill.) expressed surprise when told McConnell had given his support to election security funding.

“Did he? Is that right? No more invitations to the Kremlin for him,” Durbin told reporters on Thursday.

The funding for election security in the Senate comes after the House appropriated $600 million to the states through the EAC to boost election security in its version of the 2020 financial services and general government funding bill. 

The House and Senate will eventually conference their bills, which means the final amount is still unclear.

Congress last year appropriated $380 million for the EAC to give to states to bolster election security, with the majority of those funds used to replace outdated voting machines and increase cybersecurity. State and local election officials have repeatedly urged Congress to give them more money to continue their efforts.

Should the $250 million be included in the funding bill signed into law, this amount combined with the $380 million will equal over $600 million appropriated by Congress for election security in the last two years. 

Some Republican members of the Senate Appropriations Committee approved of the inclusion of the funds, but urged congressional oversight of states to ensure the funds are used appropriately.

Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordGOP senator calls on State Department to resume passport application processing GOP senators urge Trump not to restrict guest worker visas Senate revives surveillance brawl MORE (Okla.), a leading Republican in the Senate on election security efforts, noted that while he would not oppose the funds, “we are just handing states money, and they are glad to take it, but we are not even requiring that they spend it at this point.”

Lankford added that according to the most recent figures, the states “have so far spent $128 million of the $380 million that we gave them. They still have $250 million unspent from two years ago. We are about to add another $250 million on top of that.” 

Coons praised the inclusion of the Senate funds, saying during the markup that the funding “will make some progress in ensuring that election infrastructure is protected.”

Both Shelby and Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), the chairman of the subcommittee that drafted and approved the bill earlier this week, had expressed strong objections to including election security funds due to concerns over federalizing elections and the fact states were still working through existing funds appropriated by Congress last year. 

But on Thursday Shelby expressed support for the funds, though he also urged oversight of how they are spent by the states.

The overall financial services and general government bill covers multiple federal agencies, including the EAC, the Treasury Department, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the judiciary. 

— Updated at 10:30 p.m.