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Election officials in the US face daunting challenges in 2024. And Congress isn’t coming to help

Feb 20, 2024, 9:02 PM | Updated: Feb 21, 2024, 11:26 am

FILE - Election judges demonstrate the accuracy of the city's voting equipment on Oct. 28, 2022, in...

FILE - Election judges demonstrate the accuracy of the city's voting equipment on Oct. 28, 2022, in Minneapolis. With election season already underway, state election officials are expressing frustration that Congress has so far failed to allocate federal money they typically use for such things as securing voter registration systems, updating equipment and training staff. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

WASHINGTON (AP) — With election season already underway, some state election officials are expressing frustration that Congress has yet to allocate federal money they have come to rely on to help cover the costs of securing their systems from attacks, updating equipment and training staff.

Election officials face a long list of challenges this year, including potential cyberattacks waged by foreign governments, criminal ransomware gangs attacking computer systems and the persistence of election misinformation that has led to harassment of election officials and undermined public confidence.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said it was “demoralizing and disappointing” that the federal government hasn’t committed to investing in this year’s presidential election.

“We are managing federal elections that are the foundation of who has power at the federal level and trying to manage a lot of different competing risks and challenges that have only escalated in recent years,” said Benson, a Democrat. “It makes us feel like we’re on our own.”

Since the 2016 election and the federal government’s decision to add the nation’s voting systems to its list of critical infrastructure, Congress has sent $995 million to states for election administration and security needs.

In Colorado, the money has been used to develop a system for voters to track their ballots and pay for training for election officials. Florida officials designated the money for increasing security of the state’s voter registration system. Elsewhere, federal money has been used to replace voting machines and add cybersecurity staff.

Most of that was allocated ahead of the 2020 election, as states rushed to boost cybersecurity defenses, and has been exhausted. A separate $400 million was required to be spent on pandemic-related election costs in 2020.

The last chunk of election-related funding was $75 million approved by Congress in December 2022. State allocations ranged from $5.8 million for California to $1 million for Nevada.

“Los Angeles elections alone costs $75 million,” said Kathy Boockvar, the former chief elections official in Pennsylvania. “I don’t think election officials have had expectations of $400 million. People have hoped for $75 million, and it’s unclear whether even that will come.”

PARTISAN BUDGET DISPUTES

Federal budget negotiations have been mired in partisan disputes, with agencies mostly operating on spending levels approved for 2023. Congress has been able to approve only temporary funding plans, which cover a few months at a time. The next deadline is March 1, when the most recent temporary funding plan expires for some departments and a week later for others. The government faces a potential shutdown if new funding is not approved.

Even if a deal is reached, there’s no guarantee of new money for elections. House Republicans last year listed election security grants as “wasteful spending” and did not allocate money for it in their spending proposal. Instead, they have been focused on legislation that would ban private organizations from providing money to election offices.

“Americans deserve to have confidence in our elections, which means elections should be free from undue private influence,” U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, a Wisconsin Republican who chairs the Committee on House Administration, said at a recent hearing.

A $75 million Senate proposal for election security is being negotiated as part of the final spending package.

“Administering free and fair elections is year-round work that takes planning and resources, and election officials on the front lines of our democracy need a steady stream of funding so that they can do things like replace aging equipment, strengthen cybersecurity, and keep pace with new technology,” U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, said in a statement.

TOUGH DECISIONS

In North Carolina, state election officials have had to make some tough decisions as the needs have outpaced state and federal funding.

North Carolina’s State Board of Elections has reduced its cybersecurity staff by one employee and has been forced to cut back in other areas to meet some of the needs for election security, said Karen Brinson Bell, the agency’s executive director. A team of six employees that had been handling election data has been reduced to just one full-time position, with another person helping part-time. Some eliminated positions were funded by federal grants that are no longer available.

“Every effort we’ve put forward for cybersecurity has come through federal funding, and without that continuous funding and no new funding through the (North Carolina) legislature, it’s hard to sustain a strong cyber posture,” Brinson Bell said.

During its recent meeting, the National Association of Secretaries of State passed a resolution calling on Congress to provide sufficient money to help officials address cybersecurity threats.

West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican, said he does not support federal money for elections because “typically, it comes with strings attached.”

Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson, also a Republican, said he would welcome federal assistance for cybersecurity needs if there was flexibility on how states spent it.

“I don’t necessarily mind a partnership there with some funding, as long as states are the ones that have the ability to spend those dollars — because what happens in Mississippi may be a little bit different than Minnesota or Maine or California,” Watson said.

SUSTAINABLE PROGRAMS

Kim Wyman, the former secretary of state in Washington, said federal officials should heed the lessons of the 2000 election — when some election offices were well-funded and others less so. She said the Help America Vote Act of 2002, approved by Congress in the aftermath of the ballot confusion in Florida, leveled the playing field with $3.2 billion in federal money going to the states. A similar investment is needed now, she said.

Wisconsin election officials have used previous federal money to provide grants to local election offices that have helped them boost their technology support and training. They also have been able to buy new voting equipment and mail ballot envelopes, said Meagan Wolfe, the nonpartisan administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

New Mexico has used federal money to help cover the costs of its election security program. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, said election officials need predictability.

“When we create programs, we want to be able to sustain those programs, not just for a year or for two years. We want to sustain them for the long term,” she said.

In Minnesota, the state has used federal money to create grants for local election officials for voting system upgrades, including electronic pollbooks and tabulators. Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said he was concerned about the lack of federal funding and the message that sends about the nation’s priorities.

“Nobody I know is looking for Congress to fund state elections,” said Simon, a Democrat. “What we are looking for – for election security and other purposes — is for them to be a partner in helping us to fill some gaps.”

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Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Election officials in the US face daunting challenges in 2024. And Congress isn’t coming to help