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Without explanation, legislative Republicans have not yet included more than $2.8 million in already-allocated federal dollars for election improvements in their proposed state budgets. The budget process is far from over, though the N.C. State Board of Elections is raising alarms over what it would mean to lose that money.
Election security projects, including updating the state’s decades-old election management system, would be crippled, according to Karen Brinson Bell, the state’s election director.
In June 2020, Republicans unanimously supported a bipartisan bill that approved the state spending the $2.3 million in required matching funding to receive more than $11.6 million in federal dollars from the Help America Vote Act.
This money was largely used to run the 2020 general elections. The law stated that any of the HAVA funds left over by June 30, 2021, could not be spent without the legislature’s approval.
Carolina Public Press contacted 10 Republican leaders in the Senate and House. None answered as to why the current budgets do not allow the State Board of Elections to use the federal funds.
Matt Masterson, a fellow at the Stanford Internet Observatory, has a clear explanation.
“That’s pure politics; there’s no other motive there,” he said.
Masterson led election security at the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, from 2018 through 2020 and is a leading expert on threats against U.S. election systems.
That state Republican officials have called for greater election security but are not yet providing the necessary funding is frustrating, Masterson said. It is also part of the national political landscape where Republican politicians have shown a “coordinated, organized effort” to push election mis- and disinformation since the 2020 election, Masterson said.
The State Board of Elections is taking the right steps to update its software and hire election security experts, Masterson said. The legislature blocking these efforts puts the security of the election system at risk, he said.
“We know that cybercriminals, as well as nation-state actors, continue to see our elections as a target,” Masterson said. “The ongoing need to shore up our defenses to build resilience in our infrastructure remains just as important, if not more important, than it did following the 2016 election.”
Republicans could still put approval to use the funds into the conference budget between the House and Senate, which would need to be signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper to take effect. The legislature could also approve the federal funds in separate legislation.
Cooper’s office is prioritizing election funding in its budget negotiations with the legislature, according to Mary Scott Winstead, the governor’s deputy communications director.
“The effort by legislative Republicans to eliminate funding for election security is a significant concern,” Winstead wrote in an email to CPP. “North Carolinians deserve safe, secure elections, and there is not currently an alternative funding source.”
Cutting funding, cutting security
North Carolina is still using election software first designed in 1998, which the State Board of Elections called “end-of-life” in its Information Technology Strategic Plan. Most of that plan will be put on hold if the board cannot get funding from the legislature, according to Board of Elections spokesman Pat Gannon.
Using old software like that opens up election systems to ransomware attacks, Masterson said. Without consistent monitoring, patching and upgrading software, it’s “only a matter of time” before an election is disrupted by malware, Masterson said.
Securing elections “is a race without a finish line,” Masterson said. It requires ongoing investment, not just in upgrading technology, but hiring the people who can maintain and improve the state’s election systems.
The State Board of Elections would have to cut 30 staff members without the HAVA funds. That is one-third of the board’s total staff and almost two-thirds of the agency’s information technology personnel, according to Gannon.
The State Board of Elections is also planning to use $500,000 of the federal dollars to participate in the Electronic Registration Information Center, which 31 other states already use and allows them to compare voter registration rolls to drop duplicate registrations.
The money is also slated to pay for the state’s online portal that allows voters to request a ballot online and helps blind voters request and cast ballots online as required by federal courts and state law.
The State Board of Elections laid out these concerns in a letter to Reps. George Cleveland and Dennis Riddell, Republican co-chairs of the appropriations committee overseeing the state board’s funding, a week before the House passed its budget.
Though the money comes from the federal government, none of its many agencies that oversee aspects of technology or elections currently have the power to force states to improve their election systems, according to Masterson and to a legal analysis the Open Source Election Technology Institute provided to CPP.
Lack of Republican transparency
Republicans are not saying why the current budgets do not allow the state to use the federal funding.
CPP twice called and emailed Reps. Cleveland and Riddell. CPP emailed and called Rep. John Bell, the House majority leader for the Republican party. CPP twice called and emailed Keith Kidwell and Bobby Hanig, Republican leaders of the House Freedom Caucus. The House Freedom Caucus recently asked to inspect voting machines based on misinformation from their constituents that there were internet-connected modems on the voting machines. The state board denied their request.
Only Demi Dowdy, spokesperson for Speaker of the House Tim Moore, replied to CPP’s questions, though she did not answer any of them.
“While I haven’t spoken with Chairmen Cleveland and Riddell, we expect additional feedback from all state agencies as the budget process moves forward,” Dowdy wrote in an email.
On the Senate side, CPP twice emailed then called Sens. Ted Alexander, Carl Ford and Bob Steinburg, the co-chairs of the Senate appropriations committee on general government and information technology.
CPP also twice called and emailed Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger’s office.
None of those Republican leaders responded to CPP’s questions, despite some legislative assistants promising to do so. They have also not told the State Board of Elections why the current budgets do not release the funds, Gannon said.
Democrats in the House and Senate accused Republicans of writing the budget behind closed doors, limiting their ability to address these kinds of issues upfront.
Rep. Allison Dahle said she is “bewildered” as to why Republicans would not approve the federal funds. She asked that the money be approved during committee meetings and on the House floor before the budget was passed, she said.
Sen. Jay Chaudhuri said that, once the conference budget is released, he expects Democrats to push to include an approval to use the federal funds.
“Republicans have touted the need for election security, but the budget priorities do not reflect that,” Chaudhuri wrote in an email to CPP.