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Experts worry US elections even more vulnerable with COVID-19

Experts worry US elections even more vulnerable with COVID-19
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Cybersecurity experts are increasingly worried that U.S. elections are growing even more vulnerable to outside interference because of the coronavirus pandemic.

They say funds to prevent interference and ensure people can vote safely are running thin, despite the fact that Congress has passed $825 million in funding for election security since December.

The chaos caused by COVID-19, which has forced states to delay or cancel primary elections and move toward allowing residents to vote absentee, has presented a new array of challenges for states that had already been focused on election security.

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“Certainly we are in an unprecedented time and these are unprecedented challenges, and these are challenges created at the intersection of these two issues,” said Benjamin Hovland, the chairman of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC). “The challenges of disinformation and misinformation is one of the biggest areas of concern.”

Paul Rosenzweig, a resident senior fellow for national security and cybersecurity at nonprofit group the R Street Institute, told The Hill he also was concerned the pandemic could increase disinformation efforts.

“I have absolutely no reason to think that the virus will in any way stop Russia from its activities, or China or Iran for that matter, in fact to the contrary it seems to have given them yet another way of pressing on the polarized splits in America’s body politic,” Rosenzweig said. 

If there are fewer people staffing polling spots because of health concerns and social distancing, or if more voters cast votes by mail, it will also create security concerns, Hovland and Rosenzweig said.

Rosenzweig said machines used to count mailed-in paper ballots could become a problem. 

“I think most people don’t realize that to count vote-by-mail ballots, most states are likely going to use machines,” Rosenzweig said. “The machine security is going to be the same, with the added problem that there will be a lot fewer observers, so tactical level fraud will be possible when there are only two guys working a machine.”

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The EAC is responsible for distributing election security funds to states. Congress set aside $425 million for states to address concerns around election security in December, and $400 million as part of the $2 trillion stimulus package signed into law last month.

The EAC last month said it would allow states to use the funds to help pay for disinfection and cleaning supplies.

Hovland, who was appointed by President TrumpDonald TrumpHouse passes voting rights and elections reform bill DEA places agent seen outside Capitol during riot on leave Georgia Gov. Kemp says he'd 'absolutely' back Trump as 2024 nominee MORE, told The Hill this week that states were “absolutely” going to dig into the election security funds to address COVID-19 problems.

“What state and local officials were anticipating was their traditional elections, and what they are facing now is above and beyond that,” Hovland said. 

States had already submitted requests for funds from the December allocation from Congress before COVID-19 spread through the country.

Initially, states were focused on replacing outdated voting equipment, securing voter registration systems and making cybersecurity upgrades. 

Now they are also focused on simply making sure people can vote without putting their health at risk.

Poll workers will not only need to protect voters, but also themselves, through purchasing personal protective gear and sanitation equipment.

Many say the money allocated by Congress is not enough.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, states had consistently called on Congress to appropriate more election security funds. Over the past weeks, officials have stepped up those calls.

Congressional Democrats, voting rights groups and secretaries of state in both parties are pressuring congressional leaders to include up to $3.6 billion more in the next major stimulus package.

Democratic Sens. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Health Care: Biden slams Texas, Mississippi for lifting coronavirus restrictions: 'Neanderthal thinking' | Senate panel splits along party lines on Becerra |Over 200K sign up for ACA plans during Biden special enrollment period Raimondo has won confirmation, but the fight to restrict export technology to China continues Senate panel splits along party lines on Becerra MORE (D-Ore.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharAlarming threat prompts early exit, underscoring security fears Raimondo has won confirmation, but the fight to restrict export technology to China continues Pentagon prevented immediate response to mob, says Guard chief MORE (D-Minn.) have been some of the key leaders on Capitol Hill pushing for the funding.

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Wyden told The Hill on Wednesday that he saw state and local elections officials as being in “dire” need of more money for election security.

“State and local elections officials are in dire need of funding and reforms to ensure that elections are secure and accessible in the face of the pandemic,” Wyden said. “That’s why it’s so vital that Congress pass new funding to expand vote by mail, and for clear federal guidelines to make sure taxpayer funds are spent on secure systems, not junk technology that is obsolete the second it’s out of the box.”

But Republicans have consistently pushed back against efforts to secure elections ahead of 2020, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGarland's AG nomination delayed by GOP roadblocks DOJ declined to take up Chao ethics probe Trump was unhinged and unchanged at CPAC MORE (R-Ky.), who has argued that imposing requirements on states to step up election security or to move to mail-in voting is federalizing the elections process.

Trevor Potter, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission appointed by President George H.W. Bush, pushed back on Wednesday against the idea that Republicans were fully against moving to mail-in voting, and appropriating more funds to do it. 

“It’s clear we are going to have to have a range of voting options, voting at home, early voting in central polling stations, voting on Election Day where possible, but it’s important that states have the resources now to pay for that,” Potter said during a press call to promote mail-in voting. “It’s important that the federal government make this possible by providing an appropriation for states.”

Hovland said that ensuring funding for both election security and addressing challenges stemming from the coronavirus pandemic were crucial. 

“This is our democracy, and we need to provide for a free, and fair, and secure and accurate election, and that costs money,” Hovland said.