This past weekend, hackers gathered in Las Vegas with a simple mission: break into America’s electronic voting machines and take control. Within minutes, some had already succeeded – but that’s a good thing. These hackers were part of a workshop held to identify vulnerabilities so they can be fixed well before any Americans cast actual votes next election. This exercise underscores the very real danger posed by outdated and insecure voting-machine software – as well as the important mission our government must continue undertaking to close these vulnerabilities and safeguard our elections.
However, in their FY2018 funding proposal, Republicans are going after the small but highly successful agency that protects the integrity of our voting systems: the Election Assistance Commission. In June, House Republicans included a provision in their Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill that would abolish the Election Assistance Commission.
Many Americans may not have heard of the Election Assistance Commission, a four-member bipartisan agency that Congress established in 2002 as part of the Help America Vote Act, but nonetheless they benefit greatly from its work. Created to address the flaws in our nation’s voting infrastructure, which contributed to the dispute surrounding the 2000 presidential election, the Election Assistance Commission protects Americans’ votes by helping to ensure that state and local authorities adopt best practices and uphold the highest standards of security for voting technology.
I was proud to be the lead Democratic sponsor of the bipartisan Help America Vote Act legislation that established the Election Assistance Commission and charged it with helping state and local election officials ensure free, fair, and safe elections. Today, in a measure of the Election Assistance Commission’s success, forty-seven of the fifty states rely on its voting machine certification process and for monitoring of reported issues. The Election Assistance Commission is critical in facilitating the sharing of information among states with regard to best practices and rapidly identifying and addressing flaws.
Never has the Election Assistance Commission’s work been more important than it is today, with Russia seeking to undermine our voting systems and those of other democracies. The kind of interference seen in our most recent election may not have altered the outcome, but it raised serious questions about vulnerabilities, especially when it comes to cybersecurity. The Election Assistance Commission provides one of our strongest built-in protections against cyberattacks on our voting infrastructure. During the 2016 election, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security worked closely with one another and with the Election Assistance Commission to identify cyber threats and provide states with the information needed to counter them. Now, the Election Assistance Commission is working to draw lessons from that election and use them to strengthen the security of states’ voting systems before Americans head to the polls again in 2018.
Given these threats and the Election Assistance Commission’s role in protecting American voters, abolishing the Commission would be downright foolish. For several years, extreme right-wing Members of the House have been determined to abolish the Election Assistance Commission, without success, as a strong bipartisan majority has continued to recognize its benefits. With the inclusion of the dangerous provision to end the Election Assistance Commission’s work now included in one of the most important government funding bills the House will consider, it is now up to senior appropriators and the Election Assistance Commission’s bipartisan supporters to step up and demand the provision’s removal.
The reasons the Election Assistance Commission’s opponents have given for abolishing the Commission have ranged from an insistence that it costs taxpayers too much to the claim that it has become a bloated bureaucracy to the conviction that the Election Assistance Commission intrudes on states’ rights. None of these reasons hold water. For one, the most Congress has ever funded the Election Assistance Commission over the course of a year was $10 million, and that was early in the agency’s existence when it was focused on initially implementing Help America Vote Act. In recent years, the agency’s annual appropriation has roughly been $5 million. Furthermore, at its peak, the Election Assistance Commission employed just 60 individuals; nearly all of those working at the Commission are experts in the field of election law and voting technology. With regard to the question of its impact on states’ rights, the Election Assistance Commission has virtually no rule-making authority and, therefore, has practically no authority over how state and local election officials carry out their elections.
There is absolutely no justification for abolishing the Election Assistance Commission. Even the Trump administration included $9.2 million in funding for the Commission in its FY2018 budget proposal. While it’s very disappointing to see this provision abolishing the Election Assistance Commission included in the initial version of House Republicans’ funding bill, there is still ample opportunity to correct this error. That’s why I’m calling on all those from both parties who voted for Help America Vote Act in 2002 and who have supported strengthening our election systems in the years since to do everything in our power to have that provision removed and to enable the Election Assistance Commission to continue its critical work.
With adversaries intent on undermining Americans’ faith in our voting systems, Congress ought to be providing the Election Assistance Commission with even greater resources to meet these new threats, not pulling the plug. It’s one thing for patriotic hackers to break into our voting systems in order to strengthen them; it’s another when foreign adversaries break in for the purpose of sowing chaos or manipulating the results. We must not allow that to happen.