Election Assistance Commission Releases Funds to Help States Prepare for 2018 Elections

Anabel Abarca

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2020

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has released over $300 million in Help America Vote Act funds to 48 states and territories intended to improve election security and administration. This comes after the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 appropriated $380 million into the Help America Vote Election Security Fund in March of this year. 

Funds increased for first time since FY2010

The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is an independent, bipartisan commission that was created in 2002 as part of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). EAC duties include certifying voting systems, auditing the use of HAVA funds, and maintaining the national mail voter registration form. In March of this year, Congress approved $10.1 million in base funding for the EAC. Congress also approved a bill that granted $380 million in HAVA funds to help states improve election security. The bill required that states match five percent of the funding within two years of being awarded the grant.

How states must comply

The bill providing $380 million to the EAC requires that states spend it in certain ways. States are allowed to use the funds to replace voting equipment to ensure that a voter verified paper record is used. States can also use it to upgrade computer systems to address vulnerabilities and for cybersecurity training of state chief election officials and local election officials.

States must comply with the funding by providing an annual Federal Financial Report due by December 30 of each year. If a state has current HAVA funds that it has not spent, states can use the funds until they are expended.

The 2018 HAVA funding allows each state to tailor the funding to their particular needs. The HAVA funds were signed into effect in March of 2018 and are being dispersed only five months later. It is the first time since FY2010 that HAVA funds have been increased. States do not have to use the money immediately and have until September 2023 to request the funds. The increased funding comes at a time when political partisanship made it unclear if the EAC would continue to exist. In 2017, a member of Congress introduced a bill to eliminate the EAC. Fortunate for proponents of the EAC, the bill to eliminate the EAC did not pass.

States can use the funds in a variety of ways including replacing voting equipment, implementing post-election auditing systems, upgrading election computer systems, cybersecurity training, and implementing cybersecurity best practices. Some states are replacing electronic voting equipment with a voter-verified paper ballot system. Over 35% will be spent on improving election cybersecurity and 13.7% will go towards improving voter registration systems. Illinois is receiving $13,232,290 with a 5% match for a total of $13,893,905.

Potential impact of funds in Illinois

The increased funding comes two years after the Illinois State Board of Elections (SBE) experienced a malicious cyber-attack in July of 2016. The Department of Homeland Security confirmed to the State Board of Elections in September of 2017 that the registration database had been targeted by Russian hackers. It was discovered that attempts were made to delete or alter the voter data by a contractor who detected the unauthorized access into Illinois voter data. The SBE intends to use the money from HAVA in the following ways:

  1. Infrastructure for a state managed network to provide centralized monitoring, mitigation, and security services to election authorities.
  2. Outreach and a Cyber Security Information sharing program with the Illinois State Police division of Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center.
  3. A Cyber Navigator/Advisor who would assist local election authorities in performing risk assessments.
  4. Additional cyber security resources for local election authorities.

Illinois was one of 39 states targeted by Russian hackers. It is of no surprise that 48 states immediately signed up for the ability to protect their state’s election integrity. It was not until June of 2017 that a National Security Agency document disclosed the scope of the hacking into states across the country. The decentralized nature of election authorities across the US means that there are over 3,000 counties that coordinate elections across 50 states and 100,000 polling places.

It is now clear that state election authorities across the US recognize cyber threats to their electronic election systems. Illinois has been a high-profile case from the very beginning, and this funding only helps to ensure that voter data is secure. One of the ways that HAVA funding will be used in Illinois is to coordinate training in over 10,000 precincts across the state via the Cyber Navigation Program. The Cyber Navigator Advisor will provide training to local election officials, and perform risk assessments on the practices currently in use for counties that sign up. Program implementation has been slow however, even after HAVA funding was released to Illinois in August. Only 25% of counties in Illinois have signed onto the Cyber Navigation Program. This lack of progress is concerning knowing that 76,000 voter records were accessed in Illinois. The hackers not only accessed records, but they were able to take information from voters such as birthdates, gender, party affiliation, and digits from voters’ social security numbers. With less than 50 days to the 2018 midterm elections, the SBE hopes that it will have well over 25% of counties signed up. The sooner counties sign up, the faster HAVA funds can be disbursed to them and allow for counties to ensure elections across Illinois are more secure than in 2016.