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Partisan Clash Over Election System Security Looming in Senate

Democrats want $250 million to help states

Senate Democrats want a floor vote on an amendment to provide $250 million in grant aid to help states beef up election system security. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Democrats want a floor vote on an amendment to provide $250 million in grant aid to help states beef up election system security. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A partisan clash over Russian hacking of state elections systems appears to be coming to a head in the Senate, where a provision to add $250 million to a four-bill spending package for states to beef up election system security may be headed for a floor vote.

Democrats are using an announcement from the Election Assistance Commission and President Donald Trump’s comments in Helsinki on July 16 to pressure Republicans to allow a floor vote on Sen. Patrick J. Leahy’s amendment to provide $250 million in grant aid to states to secure election systems.

“Our states are under attack,” Leahy, ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said on the floor Thursday. His amendment would provide the $250 million as part of the four-bill fiscal 2019 spending package that is expected to get a floor vote next week.

Watch: McConnell Warns Russians to Keep Out of Elections, Schumer Wants More Than Words

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Republicans had opposed providing the additional money, saying that barely more than half the states had yet to ask for their shares of the $380 million earmarked for state election security in the fiscal 2018 budget. But the Election Assistance Commission said July 16 that all states have filed applications and that 88 percent, or $334 million, of the funds had been disbursed.

The EAC statement was dated the same day that Trump, standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin after their meeting in Helsinki, declined to endorse U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings that the Russians had sought to influence the 2016 election. Trump cited Putin’s denial of such interference and appeared to give the denial equal weight to the contradictory views of the administration’s intelligence officials.

The White House has since walked the comments back and forth, but Democrats have seized on the issue during the appropriation process.

Republicans have also said that adding funds to the program for fiscal 2019, which begins Oct. 1, leaves insufficient time to get the money to states in time for any improvements before this November’s midterm elections.

Leahy noted that the $380 million in grants became available only on March 23.

“In just the few months since then, states and territories, that’s 55 in all, have requested funding — 100 percent of these funds have been committed, 90 percent of them have been dispensed,” he said. “My amendment would provide the funding needed to help protect our elections, which we have been warned are once again being targeted. This Senate must be allowed to vote to defend this institution and our democracy.”

Early last month, the EAC reported that 55 percent of the funds had yet to be requested and that 24 states had yet to make requests.

Senate Financial Services Appropriations Chairman James Lankford, R-Okla., referred to similar figures last month at the markup of the spending bill. He said he had filed legislation that would require reports on states’ use of grant funds and would authorize more money for cybersecurity and modernization of election systems as needed.  

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