The death of a bill in Congress this week that would have bolstered election security systems puts more pressure on states to prevent cyberattacks from Russia that former special counsel Robert Mueller warned against this week. But many states are paralyzed by their own inaction.
State and local election officials want to replace aging or outdated equipment before the 2020 election, but many have said they lack the money to do so. In some states, recent legislative sessions produced little progress.
The issue took on greater urgency this week in Washington as Mueller bluntly told lawmakers about Russian meddling in American elections: “They’re doing it as we sit here.” Democrats passed a $775 million spending measure to funnel more money to states for election security, but Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell blocked the bill. The Kentucky senator said the federal government is already doing enough to shore up voting systems and there’s no need to spend an additional sum of money that size.
Texas is one state that illustrates the challenges in enacting significant election security.
A Texas bill this year would have required all voting machines to have paper trails by 2024, but those changes were included in a broader Republican package to crack down on ballot-box crime, such as making it a felony to put false information on a voter registration form.
Democrats slammed the provisions as an attempt to dissuade people from voting, at a time when tensions were already heightened over Texas elections officials wrongly calling into question the citizenship of nearly 100,000 voters. The bill failed, along with another that would have established a grant fund to help counties purchase voting machines that include paper trails.
“I’m not worried that the Russians are hacking into a machine that is not connected to the Internet. They can’t do it,” Democratic state Rep. Celia Isreal, a member of the Texas House elections committee. “But every election is run by the county in Texas, and our counties are strapped for resources.”
The most urgent concern centers on the 12 states that use, either statewide or in certain local jurisdictions, electronic voting machines that do not produce a paper record so voters can verify their choices before they cast their ballot. Experts say these machines are vulnerable and that hackers could manipulate the outcome without detection.
Those states are Delaware, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.
Mueller’s team indicted a dozen Russian intelligence agents last year on charges related to 2016 election meddling, including a notable hack of Illinois’ voter registration database that stole information on thousands of voters.
States ever since have been trying to improve their election systems with a combination of state and federal funds. While $380 million in federal funds were sent to states for election security, experts say this was more of a down payment and will not cover much of what needs to be done.
“We cannot survive having a lump sum of money once every 10 to 15 years,” Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos said Friday. “We need ongoing sustainable funding in order to maintain this battle against bad actors like the Russians.”
Last August, Vermont’s online voter registration system successfully defended itself against a series of attempted cyber intrusions that were described in the Senate Intelligence report that was released Thursday.
“There is a gratification and a sense of relief,” Condos said of his system successfully defending itself. “But there is also a concern going forward, ‘Oh my god, what are we going to face next?’”
Louisiana has paperless voting machines across the state as it prepares for a 2019 election for governor and other statewide office holders.
Lawmakers previously had set aside $2 million in a voting technology fund, as a down payment on a machine replacement expected to cost tens of millions of dollars. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin had hoped millions more would be added this year, but the $30 billion budget that that goes into effect July 1 was enacted with far less money than officials wanted to properly improve voting systems.
A contract for the new voting machines hasn’t been settled, and the secretary of state’s office hasn’t begun seeking vendors for the work, after a previous solicitation effort was derailed by allegations of improper bid handling.
Arizona is a state where hackers targeted the voter registration system in 2016. As 2020 approaches, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs believes the state is ready in the event of another attempted attack, but wishes she had more money.
“We don’t know what the Russians or other foreign actors are going to come up with, but I do feel confident that we are prepared for that,” Hobbs said. “That being said, we can always use more resources, so it is problematic that the Senate Republicans are blocking that.”