Congress

Election assistance agency pleads for more money ahead of 2020

“What we are working on is the infrastructure of our democracy”

Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt noted Wednesday that budget cuts at the Election Assistance Commission came during the Obama administration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Officials from the Election Assistance Commission, a federal agency responsible for overseeing voting machines used in thousands of jurisdictions across the country and helping states adopt good election administration practices, pleaded with lawmakers for more money to do their jobs ahead of the 2020 elections.

The federal agency is working with a staff and budget that are about half what they were 10 years ago, officials said Wednesday as lawmakers grappled with how to beef up the agency.

The commission “lacks sufficient funding for the human capital capacity to address” dozens of areas where it needs to do work before the national elections in 2020, Chairwoman Christy McCormick and three other commissioners said in a joint statement prepared for the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

The commission has 22 employees compared with 49 nearly a decade ago, and operates on a budget that is about 50 percent of what it was in fiscal 2010, the commissioners said. “Without additional resources, it’ll be a formidable stretch” for the staff to “support our nation’s election administrators and voters,” they said.

Sen. Roy Blunt, who chairs the Senate Rules panel that oversees the commission, said he couldn’t promise the agency would get the full complement of staff and budget it needed but was open “to talking about what they [would] do with the staffing, if they had it.”

The Rules committee is not the panel that appropriates money and “all we can do is advise the Appropriations Committee, looking at what the commission’s justifiable needs are and properly fund them,” the Missouri Republican told reporters after the hearing.

The commission’s budget request for fiscal 2020 is $7.95 million, which is about $1 million less than 2019 and lower than the annual money set aside by Kansas City, Missouri, to fix its potholes, the commission’s vice chairman, Benjamin Hovland, told the committee.

“What we are working on is the infrastructure of our democracy,” Hovland said. “What we need is an investment from Congress to help us do that work.”

Blunt said the budget cuts came during the Obama administration when the commission’s core purpose — to distribute federal grant money to states with the goal of upgrading election systems — had been largely accomplished.

“Prior to 2016, the purpose of the EAC was in real doubt,” Blunt said. After the 2016 elections when evidence emerged that Russians had attempted to break into 21 state election systems and managed to penetrate seven of them, “it became more and more obvious there needed to be an interface between state and local officials and the federal agencies,” he said. “For the first time in a decade, they have meaning.”

In 2018, Congress provided $380 million in grants to help states boost the security of their election systems, but attempts by Democrats to provide additional funding over and above that failed in the face of Republican opposition.

Key tasks the commission is just beginning work on include updating security and other standards for voting machines, which are used by states in deciding what equipment to buy.

The standards known as voluntary voting system guidelines were last set in 2005 and updated once in 2015, but none of the voting machine manufacturers have been certified under the 2015 standard, McCormick said.

Asked by Maine independent Sen. Angus King if she thought voting machines using 2005 standards were a problem, McCormick said, “Yes, we do, and we are trying to remedy that, senator.”

McCormick said that under current standards, voting machines that don’t produce a paper backup could still be certified. The standard, however, doesn’t allow for machines to be connected to the internet, which can pose a security risk.

McCormick and other commissioners also testified that the commission had only three staff members in charge of setting new standards, a number that King noted “was not adequate staff.”

In addition to setting standards for machines, the main purpose of the commission is to parcel out federal grants to states that are upgrading old voting machines to new ones that can generate a paper record and help with postelection audits.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the panel, proposed legislation in the last Congress that would have mandated that all states have paper backups and require them to conduct postelection audits, but the bill failed to get a committee vote after last-minute objections raised by the White House.

Commissioner Thomas Hicks told lawmakers that the five states and several jurisdictions in other states that still use paperless voting machines would like to upgrade to machines that provide a backup, but don’t have the money to do so.

Blunt was the only Republican to attend the hearing.

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