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Election Officials Face 2024 Challenges02/21 06:13

   

   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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