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.
After problems with voting machines and methods marred the 2000 election, lawmakers decided to help states avoid similar problems in the future.
The legislation they passed, which is also known as HAVA, set aside $3 billion in grants for states to replace their old voting machines.
Congress decided to draw down funds through HAVA again this year following reports of Russian interference in the 2016 election. However, this time lawmakers are spending about a tenth of what they did the last time.
“It is utterly inappropriate and completely insignificant amount when you look at the need,” Debeauvoir says. “It’s a 10-cent solution to a $25 problem.”
Texas is getting about $23 million for election security this year. By comparison, the state received about $200 million in the 2000s.
Congressional Democrats recently tried and failed to insert an additional $250 million for election security in spending bills.
Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the Texas secretary of state, says it’s not a lot of money for a big state like Texas, but it could help the state tackle some technology issues.
“It’s a lot of money when you are talking about cybersecurity,” Taylor says. “So it gives us a lot of resources to dole out to the counties who are looking to further secure their voter registration databases, and just add additional security steps, to train their county election officials.”
States across the country are figuring out how they plan to spend their grant. Each state has to submit a spending proposal, which the Election Assistance Commission has to sign off on.
“State by state, this issue is playing out in different ways,” says Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University. He says each state administers elections in their own way and have very different vulnerabilities.
It’s also possible state and local governments may supplement those grants and spend their own money on securing elections.
“Not in, like, a deep way, but in terms of, like, finding the biggest holes and doing their best to mitigate those holes,” Wallach says. “And hopefully that will get us through 2018.”
Debeauvoir says these resources are probably coming too late for this fall’s election. That’s why she says she didn’t wait for a grant. Debeauvoir has been using local resources for the past year to make Austin’s voter registration database less hackable.
“But has every county in Texas been able to invest its resources in protecting voter registration up front, right now? I doubt that,” she says. “And I worry for the other counties.”
Another concern is that these grants won’t help states buy new voting machines.
Texas’ machines are nearing the end of their lifespan. Many are electronic voting machines that don’t create a paper trail. Taylor says the Texas Secretary of State’s Office is focusing attention on the state’s vulnerable voter registration databases because they are connected to the Internet.
Taylor says all the federal money probably won’t be spent by the 2018 election — but he’s hopeful about 2020.
Wallach says all of this is better than nothing.
“Now election officials are forced to grapple with security issues in their equipment,” he says. “And just recognizing that we have a problem is the next step towards resolving it.”
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