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New federal funds for election security garner mixed reactions on Capitol Hill

The inclusion of $425 million for election security purposes in the House and Senate-negotiated annual appropriations bill garnered mixed reactions on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, with Democrats taking issue with how states will be allowed to spend the funds.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the key Senate Democrats who has advocated strongly this year for the Senate to take action on election security, told reporters on Tuesday that it was a “huge mistake” for Congress to allow the new funds to be spent on items including voting machines that experts might not deem as secure.

“Under this language they can basically spend it on a whole variety of things apparently that really don’t go to the heart of modern security,” Wyden said. “As a member of the [Senate] Intelligence Committee, I won’t talk about anything classified, but I will say that the threats we face in 2020 will make what we saw in 2016 look like small potatoes.”

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The funds were included in the government appropriations deal following negotiations between the House and Senate, along with a requirement that states match the federal funds by 20 percent, meaning the final amount available for election security upgrades will total $510 million. 

The House approved the 2020 Financial Services and General Government spending bill earlier this year with $600 million included for election security, and included requirements on how the money could be spent in regards to securing elections. 

The Senate Appropriations Committee previously approved their version of the same bill that included $250 million for election security, but with far fewer requirements around how the money could be spent. 

While the amount was increased from $250 million, the Senate language was ultimately used in the appropriations bill, which the House passed on Tuesday. The Senate is scheduled to vote on the measure before the end of the week, and the White House has indicated that President Trump will sign it.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted on Monday that “more money for election security is good, but it is *not* a substitute for passing election security reform legislation that Senate GOP leadership has been blocking all year.”

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Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told The Hill that while he was pleased the funds were included in the spending bill, he “would have liked to have a little more clarity” on how the funds can be spent. 

“I would always support more, because we have to make sure we have the most robust system possible, but I am pleased with the increase,” Peters added.

Republicans seemed lukewarm on the inclusion of the election security funds. 

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told The Hill that he did not see election security as a “funding issue,” while Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who objected to the original decision to include $250 million in the Senate funding bill, said that the states “don’t need” the new funding.

“The states haven’t spent all we gave them last time, but if the majority want to do it, the majority rules,” Kennedy said, referring to the $380 million Congress appropriated to states for election security in 2018. 

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee with jurisdiction over many of the election security bills introduced in the Senate, also referred to the previously appropriated funds in giving his approval to the inclusion of the new money for election security.

“It will be fine, they still haven’t spent all the money they have, some of them have though, there is nothing wrong with having more money for this,” Blunt said. 

The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) was put in charge of distributing the funds to states in 2018, with EAC Chair Christy McCormick testifying during a Senate Rules Committee hearing earlier this year that the EAC expected 85 percent of the $380 million to be spent by the 2020 elections.

New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice released a breakdown of how the new funds would likely be distributed amongst U.S. states and territories, according to voting-age population on Tuesday. As a result, California, the most populous state in the nation, would receive $39 million, while Wyoming, the smallest state by population, would receive $3 million. 

The amounts are higher than what the states previously received as part of the $380 million appropriated by Congress in 2018 for election security purposes. 

The Brennan Center noted that “the funding is only a first step, as many in Congress have acknowledged, and further action from Congress, the states and local election officials will be necessary in order to ensure that future elections are secure.”

 

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