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Funding Safe and Secure Elections During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The pandemic has upended every facet of American life, but one area where it could still have an outsized effect is the upcoming 2020 elections.

by Verizon / August 5, 2020
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The pandemic has upended every facet of American life, but one area where it could still have an outsized effect is the upcoming 2020 elections.

With states beginning to reopen and social distancing guidelines in effect for the foreseeable future, election officials will have to determine how to help ensure citizens can safely exercise their right to vote, whether through mail-in ballots or in-person voting.

Aside from the public health risks, there are also significant cybersecurity risks. Nation-state actors, adversary governments and other cybercriminals have a vested interest in jeopardizing voting integrity.1 These bad actors could manipulate voter data and launch ransomware attacks on voter registration databases, which could lead to what some experts have called the “digital disenfranchisement” of certain segments of the electorate.2

Improving election security and protecting voter and poll worker health will be paramount. The pandemic and concerns about ballot security may require governments to upgrade existing voting sites to improve cybersecurity and create new “pop-up” sites (locations not typically used for voting) to help ensure social distancing.

Two funding sources could help states modernize election infrastructure and address the dual challenges of election security and voting in the midst of a global pandemic: The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES).

Investing in election security, voter and poll worker health: Overview of HAVA and CARES Act funding

Election security is an ongoing challenge, especially when municipalities rely on outdated legacy systems to facilitate the voting process. However, even though several states have upgraded voting equipment in recent years, paperless machines also come with security vulnerabilities that could compromise election integrity.3

Additionally, many states are not set up for unilteral vote-by-mail for federal elections.4 As states experience severe declines in tax revenue due to the pandemic, they also have limited room in their budgets to cover the costs of upgrading their voting infrastructures. While a vote-by-mail model may be appealing during a pandemic, migrating to vote-by-mail could cost an estimated $1.4 billion nationwide. Conversely, at $272 million, in-person voting is significantly more cost effective.5 However, in-person voting during a pandemic also presents its own risks, so elections agencies must have solutions to maintain social distancing guidelines and provide a safe environment at polling sites.

"Common nationwide threats justify federal assistance in funding individual state efforts to prevent and defend against cyber threats."

This is where federal funding can make all the difference.

“The emergence of cyber threats to election systems requires resources state and local governments may not sustain alone. Election security is equated with national security. Common nation-wide threats justify federal assistance in funding individual state efforts to prevent and defend against cyber threats,” notes the National Association of Secretaries of State in its Resolution on Principles for Federal Assistance in Funding of Elections.

HAVA, enacted in 2002, provides funding to states to enhance election technology and improve election security for federal elections. Funding varies by state according to the size of their populations. The 2018 HAVA grant allocated $380 million, which some states are still dispersing.6 In addition to this existing funding, states have $425 million in HAVA funds available for 2020. States also can use this 2020 funding to cover certain allowable election costs related to COVID-19.7

The CARES Act has made $400 million in funds available. These funds have already been allocated to states based on their population size and must be used “to prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, for the 2020 federal election cycle.”8 Together, there is more than $825 million in funding currently available, with potentially more funding on the way as Congress prepares another stimulus package. Both HAVA and CARES Act funding are available to help states facilitate safe and secure elections. However, both funding sources come with rules that leaders need to be aware of as they leverage these funding streams. For 2020 HAVA funds, states must match the allocation they receive by 20 percent within two years and use the funds within five years. States had to submit a budget and narrative about how they planned to use funds by April 27, 2020, but if your state hasn’t yet done this, you can contact the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) for additional guidance. CARES Act funding also requires a 20 percent match and is available through December 31, 2020.9 States must report their expenditures within 20 days of use and unused funds must be returned to the Treasury Department.

The EAC has guidelines for how states can use these funds and states will be subject to annual reporting requirements to ensure proper use. CARES Act funding, for example, can be used on “cleaning supplies and protective masks for staff and poll workers, resources to meet an unanticipated increased demand for mail ballots due to self-isolation and quarantine in response to COVID-19, and temporary staff to process the increased absentee ballot demand.”10 This funding also can be used for additional electronic equipment and connectivity that states need to keep voters and poll workers safe due to the pandemic, such as creating new pop-up sites for social distancing, additional cell phones for workers or cellular signal boosting for areas that have poor coverage.11

Funding request letters that some states submitted to EAC indicate municipalities have diverse needs. For example, Alabama plans to use its $8.2 million to upgrade voting equipment, secure check-in protocols on Election Day through the provisioning of electronic poll books, and leverage GIS software to help voter registrars ensure voter rolls are accurate and up to date.12 California plans to use its $46.4 million award for technical and security enhancements, security training, infrastructure needs, equipment costs and polling place administration.13

These funding requests indicate that many states are laser-focused on cybersecurity as they prepare for November.

Strategies for navigating funds

Many states already have submitted funding requests, but here are some strategies for how you can maximize federal dollars:

Take full advantage of CARES Act funding

Unless the impending next stimulus package reverses earlier mandates, this funding is only available until December 31, 2020. With a tighter timeframe, your state should begin putting these funds to work now. Keep in mind these funds can only be applied to line items related to COVID-19 specific needs, including security measures to help secure elections.

Be aware of the 20 percent match

The 2020 HAVA funds and existing CARES Act funds include a 20 percent match that must be paid back within two years. Given pandemic-related declining tax revenue, that timeframe or requirement may get extended, but regardless, your state should think about strategies to repay these funds.

Revisit your strategic technology plan

Regardless of how you plan to use HAVA funding, you need to have a strategy that outlines the key technology capabilities necessary to achieve these goals. Your state should determine its priorities and requirements and assess vendors based on how well they align with this vision and how well their offerings meet most — if not all — your election infrastructure security needs.

Conclusion

Elections are sacrosanct to America’s democracy, but over the last decade, it has become harder to secure them. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of complexity. However, states now have a prime opportunity to put mechanisms in place that could yield significant long-term benefits. With increased federal funding available, states can take advantage of these funds to work with a trusted and experienced technology partner who can help them shore up their election infrastructure, bolster security and give voters confidence that will help safeguard the integrity of the country’s elections in November.

For more information, visit Verizon.


1 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/07/us/politics/remote-voting-hacking-coronavirus.html?smid=em-share

2 Ibid.

3 https://www.npr.org/2019/09/03/756007555/states-upgrade-election-equipment-wary-of-a-race-without-a-finish-line

4 https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/few-states-are-prepared-to-switch-to-voting-by-mail-that-could-make-for-a-messy-election/

5 E.Republic Powerpoint: Safer and More Secure Elections During COVID-19

6 https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/funding-election-technology.aspx

7 https://www.eac.gov/news/2020/03/17/eac-announces-additional-resources-election-officials-concerning-corona-virus-covid

8 https://www.eac.gov/payments-and-grants/2020-cares-act-grant-faqs

9 However, another round of proposed stimulus funding may seek to extend this date.

10 https://www.eac.gov/election-officials/guidance-use-hava-funds-expenses-related-covid-19

11 https://www.eac.gov/election-officials/guidance-use-hava-funds-expenses-related-covid-19#We-expect-to-receive-a-much-higher-percentage-of-absentee-ballots-and-need-to-purchase-more-automated-letter-opening-equipment-and-scanners.%C2%A0-Can-we-use-HAVA-funds-to-purchase-more-equipment?%C2%A0-Can-we-lease-the-equip-ment? (See “Allowable, Allocable Costs” section.)

12 Center for Digital Government 2020 HAVA Funds Request Letters

13 Ibid.

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