Officials at the Election Assistance Commission say they are eager to approve updated federal standards for the nation’s voting machines that will introduce new technical and security requirements, but the agency faced harsh criticism from several state election officials at a May 6 public meeting for its sluggish pace. The federal government’s voting system standards are voluntary, but most states require the machines they buy to comply with them. Virginia Elections Commissioner Christopher Piper called the current federal certification process “an obstacle to a more secure system” and griped that election officials have been waiting years for the newest version of the standards to work its way through the EAC approval process. “The process is not fast enough to adapt to the changing security environment or to address the accessibility needs of many voters,” Piper said, later adding “The fact is the delay has proven to be a convenient excuse in all sectors not to update our voting systems.”
National: States can’t access emergency COVID-19 election funding because of steep match rates | Nicole Goodkind/Fortune
In late March as part of the stimulus package known as the CARES Act, Congress gave states $400 million to protect the upcoming presidential and federal elections from any COVID-19 related disruptions. Now, some states are saying that they have no way to access that money. In order for a state to receive its part of the $400 million—doled out by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and expected to be put toward expenses like mail-in ballots and personal protective equipment for poll workers—it has to commit to matching 20% of the money with its own funds. Companies that received stimulus money from the bill had no similar match requirements. In the past, states have been asked to contribute money to receive election funds, but at a 5% rate, according to Democratic Minnesota secretary of state Steve Simon. He’s unsure of why this particular match rate is so high, especially when the funds are so vital to ensuring a successful presidential election. Minnesota needs approval from its legislature in order to match funding, and with just two weeks before its members retire for the year, getting to any kind of agreement looks precarious. Still, Simon says, his state is lucky because the legislature is still in session. About 15 state legislatures have already adjourned for the year, which means that unless they call a special session to order, they won’t reconvene until early in 2021. In order to receive the funding, a match must be guaranteed by Dec. 31, 2020.
State election officials can use the grants they received in the CARES Act (H.R. 748) to fund internet voting projects, the Election Assistance Commission confirmed to MC on Friday. The rollout of internet voting is a permitted use of the grants if it is done “in response to [the] coronavirus and the 2020 election,” Mona Harrington, the agency’s acting executive director, said in an email to Eric. News that states can use the grants for internet voting, first reported by MC, comes as three states prepare to let some residents vote online in upcoming contests, with two of them adding the option due to the ongoing pandemic. Election security experts lambasted the decision, saying the government was effectively putting its seal of approval on a technology they consider highly dangerous. “To me, the purpose [of the grants] is to promote safety in elections and security in response to the COVID crisis — which should mean responsible vote-by-mail, early voting, and safe in-person voting options,” said Adam Ambrogi, a former EAC staffer who leads the elections program at the Democracy Fund. “The downside risks of moving in this direction are immense,” said Douglas Jones, a University of Iowa computer science professor who studies electronic voting. Asked about the legislative language, Jones said, “I think there are too few strings.” Congress did not address specific technologies when it authorized $400 million for “election security grants” in the CARES Act, a fact that dismayed a key lawmaker. “It would be a mistake for states to experiment with [insecure] methods of voting when there are time-tested and safer alternatives readily available,” House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), whose committee oversees election policies, told MC in a statement. “Requiring vote by mail paper ballots for all voters who want one and expanding early voting to reduce crowd size on election day, as House Democrats have proposed, will not only produce a verified paper trail that is secure and auditable, but also protect the safety of voters and the integrity of our elections.”
National: EAC Commissioners urge immediate action to protect voting amid coronavirus | Mark Albert/KETV
Federal election leaders called an urgent hearing in Washington D.C. Wednesday to find out how to keep America’s elections safe from the coronavirus, and how to protect voting. At a hastily-called virtual hearing, the U.S. election assistance commission Wednesday focused on how elections in all states will be affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeping…
National: Emergency election money is available. But some states struggle to claim it | Carrie Levine/Center for Public Integrity
Some states aren’t sure if they can claim their share of emergency funds Congress approved to help states meet pandemic-related expenses for administering 2020 elections, citing conditions on the money. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which is coordinating the flow of $400 million to the states, had received request letters from 37 states as of Tuesday. For some of the remaining states, a major obstacle is a requirement that they match 20 percent of the federal money with their own dollars — at a time when the coronavirus outbreak is straining state budgets and draining surpluses. The National Association of Secretaries of State has told lawmakers that the matching requirement will be “extremely difficult” for states to meet. Election officials from both parties have also raised concerns and said Congress should lift or reduce the match requirement.
National: Voting security guidelines get Election Assistance Commission attention | Tim Starks/Politico
New federal voting system guidelines prohibiting internet and wireless connectivity received significant attention on Friday when members of an Election Assistance Commission advisory group explained the broad suite of new guidelines to EAC commissioners and the public during a virtual meeting. If approved, version 2.0 of the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines will require voting machines and ballot scanners to be air-gapped from networked devices, such as e-poll books that access voter registration databases. The new VVSG would also require physical connections instead of Wi-Fi or Bluetooth for peripherals such as keyboards and audio headsets. The internet and wireless bans “are logical and make sense and definitely could be [accomplished by] election officials,” said Orange County, Calif., elections supervisor Neal Kelley, a member of the EAC’s Technical Guidelines Development Committee. Asked by EAC Commissioner Donald Palmer whether the bans were feasible, Kelley said Orange County and other jurisdictions already use air gaps. The requirements should not “be onerous in any way,” he said. The NIST staffers who wrote the VVSG provisions “had many discussions surrounding this issue,” said Mary Brady, the head of NIST’s voting system program. Staffers talked to vendors about “what they thought might be workable,” she told Palmer. They also reassured election officials that simple workarounds existed for their most common networking use cases.
National: States would get $400 million to run elections under COVID-19 threat | Derek B. Johnson/FCW
The $2 trillion economic relief package passed by the Senate March 25 would set aside $400 million for states and localities to restructure their election processes to deal with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, but some lawmakers and election security experts say the sum is paltry compared to what is needed. The Election Assistance Commission is charged with distributing grants on a per capita basis within 30 days of passage. The bill does require that each state provide a report to EAC at least 20 days out from their election, detailing how they spent their share and how it allowed them “to prevent, prepare for and respond to the coronavirus.” The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, which examines election security and integrity issues, calculated that states need more funding to expand vote-by-mail infrastructure.
National: Election Assistance Commission hires cyber-savvy adviser to support 2020 efforts | Sean Lyngaas/CyberScoop
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission is hiring a senior policy adviser to bolster its cybersecurity work with election officials and voting equipment vendors ahead of the 2020 presidential vote. Maurice Turner is set to join the federal commission at the end of the month as a senior adviser to the executive director, supporting the EAC’s internal operations and programing. Externally, he says he can help the commission with an update to important guidelines for voting systems security, and in supporting states as they set up programs to find and fix software vulnerabilities. “I want election officials to expect that EAC is a place that they can go for this type of information,” Turner told CyberScoop. “Whether it’s about security standards or new methods for election administration.” Turner has spent the last two years working on election security at the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology. He was previously a fellow in the Senate advising the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on cybersecurity issues.
National: Election Assistance Commission allows states to use election security funds for cleaning supplies to fight coronavirus | Maggie Miller/The Hill
The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) on Tuesday announced it would allow states to use funds allocated by Congress for election security to fight the spread of coronavirus at the polls. The EAC said it would allow states to use the money, which totals over $800 million, to purchase disinfectant wipes, masks and other cleaning supplies in order to lower the risk of voters contracting coronavirus at the polls. “The EAC considers these allowable costs purchased to protect the health and safety of poll workers, staff and voters during federal elections,” the EAC wrote in a notice announcing the change. The funds include $380 million allocated by Congress to states to shore up election security in 2018. It also includes the $425 million given to states as part of the 2020 appropriations cycle, money that has still not been made available but that states are allowed to incur expenses against.
National: Election Assistance Commission Issues Guidance on Handling Primaries and Caucuses During Coronavirus | Courtney Bublé/Government Executive
As the novel coronavirus outbreak occurs during the presidential primary and caucus season, the nation’s elections information clearinghouse issued guidance last week to mitigate public health risk during voting. The independent and bipartisan Election Assistance Commission, which certifies voting systems and provides best practices in election administration, published a list of resources for state election officials, voting system vendors and federal agencies on Thursday on how to deal with the coronavirus. Primary and caucus season kicked off on Feb. 3 and runs until June 7, which is followed by the Democratic convention in July and the Republican one in August. So far only Louisiana and Georgia have postponed their primaries because of the coronavirus. Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, said on ABC News on Sunday that it could take “several weeks to a few months” before things go back to normal. Then on Sunday night, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there should be no large events or mass gatherings with 50 or more people for the next eight weeks.
National: Bipartisan commission to make 75 recommendations to defend against cyberattacks | Maggie Miller/The Hill
A new report by a bipartisan commission will include at least 75 recommendations for Congress and the executive branch on how to defend the nation against cyberattacks, including bipartisan recommendations for defending elections. Members of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, which includes lawmakers, federal officials and industry leaders, highlighted the group’s focus on election security during an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Tuesday, previewing some of the recommendations that will be among those released March 11. Commission member former Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Penn.) said the report — which marks a major effort to create a blueprint for federal action on cybersecurity going forward — was “biased towards action,” and was meant to spur change. “It’s not some report that is going to be in the Library of Congress that no one is going to look at again,” Murphy said. “There is going to be some legislative action, there are going to be some executive actions.” The report’s recommendations around election security will mark a rare bipartisan effort to address the issue following years of contention on Capitol Hill after Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
National: Disability rights groups say focus on election security hurting voter accessibility | Maggie Miller/The Hill
Disability rights advocates on Thursday urged election officials to focus on accessibility alongside security for U.S. elections and pushed for more technological solutions that would allow all Americans to cast secure votes. “For people with disabilities, our votes aren’t secure now,” Kelly Buckland, the executive director of the National Council for Independent Living, said at an election accessibility summit hosted by the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) on Thursday. “I believe we could make them more secure through technology that is available today.” After Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections — which according to U.S. intelligence agencies and former special counsel Robert Mueller involved sweeping disinformation efforts on social media and targeting of vulnerabilities in voter registration systems — election security has become a major topic of debate on the national stage. Concerns around the use of technology in elections were also heightened this month following the use of a new vote tabulation app by the Iowa Democratic Party during the Iowa caucuses. The app malfunctioned due to a “coding issue,” leading to chaos around the final vote tally. After these incidents, election security experts have advocated for using more paper ballots to ensure no individual or group can hack the votes, and to ensure no glitch can occur. However, disability groups on Thursday noted that moving to just paper could make it difficult to vote for blind or visually impaired people, those who have difficulty leaving their homes, or those for whom English is not their first language.
National: White House Budget Gives Election Assistance Commission More Funding, But Expert Says It’s Not Enough | Courtney Bublé/Government Executive
Amid growing concern about the integrity of the nation’s election systems, President Trump gave the federal agency charged with coordinating efforts to ensure accurate and secure voting a slight funding increase as part of his fiscal 2021 budget request to Congress, but one expert says it would not be nearly enough. On Monday, the White House sent Congress a $4.8 trillion budget request for fiscal 2021 that would increase military spending by 0.3% and decrease non-defense spending by 5%. For the bipartisan and independent Election Assistance Commission, the plan proposed allocating a little over $13 million, of which $1.5 million would be transferred to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. This would represent a $300,000 increase over fiscal 2020 enacted levels, after subtracting a one-time allocation for relocation expenses from the 2020 total. While some election security experts applauded the slight funding boost in Trump’s proposal, others say more is needed for the agency that certifies voting systems and serves as an information clearinghouse for best practices in election administration.
Nine months from an intensely contested presidential election already clouded by anxiety about the integrity of the results, the main federal agency overseeing the process is struggling to get back on its feet after years in turmoil. The Election Assistance Commission is unknown to most Americans. But it certifies the reliability of the machines most voters will use this fall, and it’s at the epicenter of efforts to protect our election systems from being hacked by foreign adversaries. And since last fall it’s been without an executive director or general counsel to coordinate the government’s limited supervision over how states and thousands of localities plan for the 2020 balloting. In fact, none of eight top officials listed on the agency website in March 2017, when the extent of Russian interference in the last presidential election was just becoming clear, are still with the agency. Neither are eight of the other 16 staff members who worked there then. And years of budget cuts have only recently started to be reversed. The ability of the already tiny operation to do its job in the leadup to November — when turnout and fear of hacking could both reach record levels — could go a long way to determining whether the world believes President Trump was either defeated or re-elected fair and square. It is a tall order that will be left largely to the four politically appointed commissioners, and two of them are new since Trump took office. Only a year ago did the EAC gain a full complement of members for the first time in almost a decade.
National: House GOP introduces bill to secure voter registration systems against foreign hacking | Maggie Miller/The Hill
Republicans on the House Administration Committee on Wednesday introduced legislation that would seek to update a long-standing federal election law and secure voter registration databases from foreign hacking attempts. The Protect American Voters Act (PAVA) would require the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to establish the Emerging Election Technology Committee (EETC), which would help create voluntary guidelines for election equipment, such as voter registration databases, not covered under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). HAVA was signed into law in 2002 following problems with voting during the 2000 presidential election. The law established the EAC and set minimum election administration standards. The EETC would be empowered to bypass the existing Voluntary Voting Systems Guidelines process, which is a voluntary set of voting requirements that voting systems can be tested against to ensure their security and accessibility. The new bill would also establish an Election Cyber Assistance Unit within the EAC, which would help connect state and local election officials across the country with cybersecurity experts who could provide technical support.
National: New Funding for Election Security Assistance Doesn’t Go Far Enough, Experts Say | Courtney Bublé/Government Executive
With just over 10 months to go before Americans head to the polls to elect their next president, states will have access to additional money to help shore up insecure voting equipment. The funding—$425 million—was included in appropriations for the Election Assistance Commission under the 2020 spending bills President Trump signed into law on Dec. 20. EAC Chairwoman Christy McCormick said the commission “will do everything in its power to distribute these funds as expeditiously as possible.” The funding is a boost over Congress’ most recent appropriation of $380 million for election improvements in 2018—the first time since 2010 that Congress made resources available to help states and localities with their election infrastructure and administration. “State and local election officials from across the country regularly tell us about the need for additional resources,” said EAC Vice Chair Benjamin Hovland. “This new funding will allow election officials to continue making investments that strengthen election security and improve election administration in 2020 and beyond.” Despite widespread evidence of foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and repeated warnings from the intelligence community about the vulnerability of election infrastructure, the bipartisan and independent Election Assistance Commission has struggled with funding and staff cuts as well as House Republicans’ threats to terminate it. With the 2020 presidential election less than a year away, the EAC lacks a permanent director and general counsel.
The EAC’s Technical Guidelines Development Committee meets today by phone to review the latest draft of version 2.0 of the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines. Public working groups have been meeting for months to revise different aspects of the widely cited federal standards, including its security provisions. In October, the cybersecurity working group added a ban on internet and wireless connectivity, which prompted some consternation and confusion at a TGDC meeting in November. Input from the TGDC — a body that includes technical experts and election officials — marks one of the first steps in the process of approving a new VVSG. But more work remains to be done on VVSG 2.0, and the TGDC isn’t likely to give the draft its final seal of approval at today’s meeting. “We anticipate continuing the discussion of the requirements with the TGDC on the next call,” NIST staffer Gema Howell wrote in an email to members of the cyber working group.
After the US House and Senate passed a $1.4 trillion spending package this week, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle congratulated themselves, which funds the federal government through September. It adds nearly $2 billion in additional funding for fighting wildfires, sets aside $25 million for gun violence research, and apportions $7.6 billion for the 2020 Census. Under the terms of the deal, all 50 states will also receive funding to improve election security. But according to Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, securing the 2020 elections from top to bottom require more time and money than what has been allocated thus far. “Congress has been completely absent when it comes to funding for election security,” Norden told Quartz. “For the most part, Congress has said, ‘States, it’s up to you,’ and states have said, ‘Counties, it’s up to you,’ and election security has been neglected.” Congress voted to distribute $425 million among the states. A provision calls for states to match an additional 20% of the amount received within two years, bringing the eventual funding for election security to about $500 million nationwide. Last year, Congress also earmarked $380 million for states to strengthen election security. State governments have until October 2023 to spend it all.
National: The voting machine certification process is making it harder to secure elections | Chris Iovenko/Slate
A judicial election in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, in November produced a literally unbelievable result. About 55,000 votes were cast on newly purchased electronic voting machines, but only 164 votes were registered for the Democratic candidate. Luckily, the touch-screen machines produced a backup paper trail, which allowed for an accurate recount. Ultimately, the Democrat won by some 5,000 votes. The root cause of this systemic vote switching is still under investigation. Whatever the case, though, the mass malfunction of these machines highlights the reliability and security issues around electronic voting systems that are mostly already primed for use in the 2020 elections. As disturbing as the Northampton County miscount is in its own right, it throws into relief a grave general issue that applies to voting systems across the country. One would hope that whatever glitch or virus, once identified, that caused the massive malfunction will be quickly and easily fixed, patched, or updated so that those machines can be relied upon to work properly going forward. Further, one would also assume that other vulnerable voting systems around the country will be updated prophylactically to prevent similar malfunctions in next year’s elections. However, neither of those things is very likely to happen. Our current regimen for certifying electronic voting systems makes changing or updating election systems in the run-up to an election very difficult—and as Election Day 2020 gets closer, that maintenance becomes virtually impossible.
The U.S. federal government subjects nearly every industry to a slew of operational rules and regulations. Defense contractors are prohibited from utilizing certain Chinese telecommunications companies like Huawei in order to prevent theft of the nation’s military technology. Power companies must abide by mandatory reliability standards and report any attempted or successful breaches of their systems to a federal commission. National banks implement federally required security procedures to prevent robberies. These sectors are meticulously managed with hundreds of requirements specifically because the Department of Homeland Security considers them so vital that their incapacitation would have a “debilitating effect” on the country as a whole. But when it comes to elections, a cornerstone of American democracy, the vendors whose voting equipment is used throughout the country largely lack the level of federal oversight and direction that protect other critical infrastructure industries from domestic and foreign interference.
National: Senators advocate for increased election security funding in 2020 budget | Melina Druga/Homeland Preparedness News
A group of 39 Democratic senators recently sent a letter to the leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees urging the panels to better fund election security. The senators requested funding for election security grants and for the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) in the Fiscal Year 2020 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill. The EAC is an independent and bipartisan commission established in the Help America Vote Act that ensures elections across the country are secure, accurate, and accessible. It sets voting standards, certifies voting equipment, and conducts the Election Administration and Voting Survey. The senators urged the committees to fund the EAC fully. Currently, the House has appropriated roughly $16.2 million for the commission, and the Senate has appropriated nearly $12 million. The commission has half the staff it did when it was founded in 2010, and EAC’s budget for salaries and administration is $10 million less.
National: Report: Election Assistance Commission Grapples With Staffing, Budget Cuts | Alexa Corse/Wall Street Journal
The federal agency responsible for setting election security standards is grappling with key leadership vacancies and inadequate funding, a new report by a government watchdog office has found. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which is focused exclusively on the voting process, is struggling to help state and local officials bolster the security of their voting systems, the agency’s inspector general said in a report released Wednesday. The commission has sought to promote cybersecurity best practices and to serve as a central resource for state and local governments, which have the primary responsibility for administering elections. But the inspector general’s report says that the commission’s efforts are faltering amid staffing shortages and years of budget cuts. Two of the agency’s most senior officials—the executive director and general counsel—stepped down last month, and the agency has begun looking for their successors, the report said. The agency’s acting executive director and chief information officer, Mona Harrington, said in a letter to the inspector general dated Monday that the agency “concurs” with the findings about its troubles.
National: Election Assistance Commission Needs More Authority In Face of 2020 Threats, Report Finds | Courtney Bublé/Government Executive
With less than a year until the 2020 presidential election, a new report calls on Congress to bolster the authority of the agency that serves as the nation’s elections clearinghouse and devote more funding and resources to it. The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and public policy institute, released a report on Tuesday that proposes a new framework for protecting election systems. Its recommendations focus on the oversight and internal operations of the Election Assistance Commission, the understaffed and underfunded federal agency responsible for promoting election administration best practices and voting machine security standards. “The federal government regulates colored pencils, which are subject to mandatory standards promulgated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, more strictly than it does America’s election infrastructure,” said the report. Although the Homeland Security Department designated election systems as critical infrastructure in 2017 following revelations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, election systems don’t receive the same type of oversight as other sectors with the critical infrastructure classification. “While voting systems are subject to some functional requirements under a voluntary federal testing and certification regime, the vendors themselves are largely free from federal oversight,” the report said. “Under our proposal, the EAC would extend its existing certification regime from voting systems to include all vendors that manufacture or service key parts of the nation’s election infrastructure.”
National: Every State Was Given Funding to Increase Election Security. Here’s How They Spent It | Nicole Goodkind/Fortune
The U.S. is less than a year out from one of the most consequential elections of the century, which President Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security has called “the big game” for foreign adversaries looking to attack and undermine the Democratic process. Congress, meanwhile, is locked in a stalemate about how to secure systems in the country’s 8,000 largely disjointed voting jurisdictions. Tuesday marks the last test of security preparedness before the 2020 elections, as certain statewide polls take place around the country. The Department of Homeland Security is gearing up “war rooms” to monitor for potential interference and test voting infrastructure, but with sluggish movement at a federal level there is little they’ll be able to do to correct any issues within the next 12 months. There is, however, one beacon of hope: 2002’s Help America Vote Act (HAVA)—a block grant issued to states to bolster election security following the Bush v. Gore hanging chad debacle some 19 years ago. In 2018, Congress used the Omnibus Appropriations Act to pad HAVA with an extra $380 million to be divided up amongst the states in proportion to their voting age population. The idea was that they spend it to prepare for the 2020 elections, and Democrats and Republicans are likely to approve at least another $250 million through the act this year.
A long-awaited update to federal voting technology standards could ban voting machines from connecting to the internet or using any wireless technology such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. A new draft of version 2.0 of the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines says that voting machines and ballot scanners “must not be capable of establishing wireless connections,” “establishing a connection to an external network” or “connecting to any device that is capable of establishing a connection to an external network.” If they survive a review process, the new rules would represent a landmark development in voting technology oversight, eliminating one of cybersecurity experts’ top concerns about voting machines by plugging holes that skilled hackers could exploit to tamper with the democratic process. The wireless and internet bans are included in the latest draft of the “system integrity” section of the VVSG update. A working group focused on the VVSG’s cybersecurity elements reviewed the document during an Oct. 29 teleconference.
National: Election Assistance Commission Loses Its Top Leaders | Courtney Bublé/Government Executive
s the nation’s elections clearinghouse faces tight funding and criticism from advocacy groups on its new voting guidelines, the agency is losing its top two officials. Election Assistance Commission commissioners voted in early September to not reappoint Executive Director Brian Newby and General Counsel Cliff Tatum, Politico reported. Under the previous succession plan, the chief operating officer would assume the role of acting executive director; however, that position has been vacant since 2015. Commission Chief Information and Security Officer Mona Harrington will assume the role of acting executive director on Wednesday, under the new plan, as the agency starts the search process for a permanent leader. “The [Election Assistance Commission] is charged with providing top quality resources that support accurate, secure and accessible elections for all eligible voters,” the EAC commissioners said in a press release regarding the vacancies. “We are lock-step in our commitment to fulfilling that mandate.”
National: Senate’s Election Security Funding Bill Leaves Election Assistance Commission Strapped for Cash | Courtney Buble/Government Executive
he cash-strapped, understaffed federal agency responsible for promoting voting machine security standards and best practices for election administration will receive very little new funding under a Senate appropriations bill aimed at bolstering election security. Bowing to pressure from Democrats and some Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week reversed course and said he would support legislation aimed at preventing foreign interference in U.S. elections. On Sept. 19, the Senate Appropriations Committee reported out the “Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act of 2020” (S.2524), which includes funding for $250 million in election security grants for state and local election administrators. But the bill includes almost no new funds for the Election Assistance Commission, the severely understaffed and underfunded agency that serves as a clearinghouse for information about voting machine security standards and administrative best practices. Under the Senate legislation, EAC would receive $11,995,000 in 2020, about $2 million more than it received in 2019, however $1.5 million of that would be transferred to the National Institute for Standards and Technology to develop voluntary state voting system guidelines, and another $2.4 million is designated for the EAC’s relocation to new offices.
National: EAC says it won’t de-certify voting systems running old versions of Windows | Sean Lyngaas/CyberScoop
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has told lawmakers that it will not de-certify certain voting systems that use outdated Microsoft Windows systems, a disclosure that highlights the challenge of keeping voting equipment secure after a vendor ceases offering support for a product. While a voting system would fail certification if it were running software that wasn’t supported by a vendor, the act of de-certifying the system is cumbersome and “has wide-reaching consequences, affecting manufacturers, election administration at the state and local levels, as well as voters,” EAC commissioners wrote in a letter to the Committee on House Administration that CyberScoop obtained. To pass certification, voting vendors must meet a series of specifications outlined in the Voluntary Voting Systems Guidelines (VVSG), a set of standards that the EAC has been slow to update. In response to questions from the committee’s staff, EAC commissioners said the laborious de-certification process can be initiated if there is credible information that a voting system no longer complies with the guidelines. However, in the case of Election Systems & Software, the country’s largest voting vendor, for example, the EAC said it didn’t have “grounds to decertify any ES&S product that uses software that is no longer supported by a third-party vendor.” The commissioners also said that there is no stipulation for how far into the future operating systems must support security patches for them to be certified.
The embattled executive director of the Election Assistance Commission, whose tenure has been marked by internal turmoil, will not serve another term, two government employees with knowledge of the decision told POLITICO. While the departure of Brian Newby will remove a controversial figure from one of the federal agencies charged with helping states secure their election systems, the shakeup will likely further hamper its mission ahead of the 2020 election, which intelligence officials say hackers working for Russia and other U.S. adversaries will once again attempt to disrupt. EAC commissioners voted over the weekend of Sept. 7-8 not to reappoint Newby for four more years, according to an agency staffer and a House aide, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. The commissioners also voted not to retain Cliff Tatum, the agency’s general counsel. Both men joined the EAC on Oct. 22, 2015. The vote on the two appointments was 2-2, splitting the Democratic and Republican commissioners, said the House aide. A decision to reappoint them would have required a majority. The vote came three months after a POLITICO story about how Newby has faced extensive criticism from inside and outside the EAC for undermining its election security work and ignoring, micromanaging and mistreating staff.
Funding to bolster election security efforts at the state level could become a sticking point during the ongoing government spending talks, with the House approving the funds while Republicans in the Senate remain staunchly opposed. The spotlight will be on the Senate on Tuesday, as the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government marks up its portion of the annual spending bill, with the full committee due to vote on the bill Thursday. While the subcommittee will wait until after the markup to release its version of the annual financial services and general government funding bill, which includes appropriations for the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), it’s unlikely to include election security funds due to Republican opposition. This could become a factor in negotiations between the House and Senate over government funding bills and make it even more difficult for Congress to approve funding legislation prior to the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, which is needed to avert a shutdown.