In the lobby of a North Austin hotel, Almina Cook is eating an ice cream sandwich as she and two of her deputies listen to a salesman pitch them on a soon-to-hit-the-market voting machine. Along with hundreds of other election administrators from across Texas, Cook, the top election official in Hunt County, has come to this biannual conference to get briefed by state and federal officials and shop for machines and software. Vendors get to entice election officials with private demos, dinners and other freebies. This year is particularly important for Cook; she needs to replace the county’s 13-year-old machines, which have exceeded their recommended life cycle and require constant repair. But early in the salesman’s spiel, Cook makes one thing clear: She’s just window shopping for now.
States across the country are in the process of receiving grants from the federal government to secure their voting systems. Earlier this year Congress approved $380 million in grants for states to improve election technology and “make certain election security improvements.” But how states use that money is up to them. In Texas, officials say they want to use the bulk of their grant to secure the state’s voter registration database. According to federal officials, Russians tried to hack a Texas election website in 2016. Dana Debeauvoir, who runs elections in Austin, Texas, as the Travis County clerk, says running elections has become increasingly more expensive and technologically complicated. She says she cast her first ballot on a lever machine — a big metal box with a bunch of tiny metal handles voters crank to select the candidate of their choice. These machines, and others, were banned by Congress when lawmakers passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002. “So they are now no longer used — also right along with punch card voting,” Debeauvoir says.
Illinois: Elections officials hear cybersecurity plan that doesn’t address aging election machines | MDJ Online
While the state elections board unveils details about its Cyber Navigator Program to help local election officials secure cyberspace, some county clerks are worried about the security of aging voting machines. The Illinois State Board of Elections held a public hearing Wednesday outlining its plan to offer up a central network for local elections officials for improved cybersecurity. The plan includes hiring 9 cyber navigators that will go around the state assessing vulnerabilities in the 108 different local election jurisdictions. While acknowledging some smaller jurisdictions can definitely use the help, Logan County Clerk Sally Turner said one of her chief concerns is voting machines. “It’s really getting old and if your county doesn’t have a lot of money, that makes it difficult to be able to go out and purchase election equipment and that’s something we’re all needing very quickly,” Turner said.
Lawrence County government officials plan to buy new voting machines before the 2019 elections season. That will give the county some assurance that the system works before the next presidential election in 2020. But the price tag that comes with mandated machines with a paper trail is one that the taxpayers locally may have to eat, unless the state and federal governments come through with funding to back up their mandate. Ed Allison, county director of elections and voting, estimated that the cost for Lawrence County to meet the mandates with a new voting system could range between $750,000 to $1.5 million. Statewide, the cost is expected to be about $150 million for all 67 counties to comply, he said.
The federal government allocated $380 million to protect and improve election system security. In a June 24 House Oversight Committee hearing, officials and House Democrats made the case for a few dollars more. Thomas Hicks, commissioner of the Election Assistance Commission, confirmed that $335 million of the $380 million in the omnibus spending bill passed in March earmarked for election security assistance has been dispersed to states and that 100 percent of the funds have been requested. The remaining $45 million is expected to be distributed by next month.
In a party-line vote, House Republicans on Thursday blocked a Democratic effort to boost election security funding. The vote was on a procedural motion by Democrats intended to add $380 million for state election security grants in 2019 to a larger spending package. That spending legislation, which includes nearly $59 billion for the Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency and Treasury Department, was approved, 217-199. Democratic lawmakers chanted “USA! USA!” on the House floor as they sought to support the bill, but Republicans insisted that those grants do not need additional funding given that as states have not yet used up all the money previously allocated to the program. “Over the past decade you’ve seen billions of dollars funded, by Republicans and Democrats, in our bipartisan appropriations each year to do exactly that, secure elections here at home,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) said, according to The Washington Post.
The Pennsylvania budget for 2018-19 includes a little more than $14 million to cover the cost of replacing the state’s voting machines. That’s a fraction of the projected $125 million it will cost to buy the more secure machines that meet the standards proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf and the Department of State in April. So far, almost all of that funding has come from the federal government. The state has chipped in just 5 percent. Wolf wants the state to have more secure voting machines, all which provide paper ballots, in time for the 2020 presidential election. If the state and federal government don’t pick up more of the cost, the counties will be forced to pay. That possibility has county leaders worried, even as many acknowledge the state needs to replace the equipment, said Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
With Pennsylvania’s 67 counties under a mandate to replace their voting systems in time for the 2020 elections, election officials will be facing difficult decisions. But county commissioners — the people voters elect for that purpose — might be frozen out of selecting the voting machines residents will use for more than a decade. Under Pennsylvania’s election code, the county election board is empowered to make decisions on election-related equipment. In most years, county commissioners also serve on the elections board in their counties. However, the commissioners are barred from serving on the board in years they are running for re-election. Next year — 2019 — is an election year for county commissioners. In Mercer County, commissioners Matt McConnell, Scott Boyd and Tim McGonigle could all be running for re-election. If they do, they could be prohibited from choosing Mercer County’s new voting system, which could carry up-front costs of about $1 million. McGonigle said the commissioners would seek guidance on the matter from solicitor William Madden.
County elections officials and Gov. Rick Scott’s administration are at odds again, this time over new state requirements on how millions of dollars in cyber-security money can be spent across the state. Florida was awarded $19.2 million from the feds in March, and most of the money is to help counties fortify their voting equipment against the ever-present threat of cyber-attacks from Russia and elsewhere, as they plan primary and general elections. First, counties accused the state of slow-walking an application for federal help. Scott had to personally intervene in May and direct Secretary of State Ken Detzner to seek the money.
An Ohio Senate bill giving the secretary of state the authority to request up to $114.5 million in state funds for the individual counties to upgrade to the next generation of voting equipment only waits on Governor John Kasich’s signature to become law. The timing of the funds is advanced enough to allow counties the chance to have personnel trained and the bugs worked before the 2020 presidential election. Senate Bill 135, sponsored by Senator Frank LaRose (R-Hudson), received concurrence Wednesday from the Senate after passing the House Thursday, June 7 with a vote of 87-0. The bill was co-sponsored by both Delaware County representatives Rick Carfagna, R-Genoa Township (68th District) and Andrew Brenner, R-Powell (67th District).