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In Congressional Hearing, Election Officials Appear United Yet Divided

Democratic and Republican secretaries of state agree that more money is needed to improve voting systems, but they disagree on how that federal funding should be spent.

Secretaries of State John Merrill of Alabama, far left, and Jocelyn Benson of Michigan, second from left, testifying before Congress.
(Twitter/John Merill)
Jocelyn Benson and John Merrill are a political odd couple.

She’s a Michigan Democrat who backed Hillary Clinton, and he's a Donald Trump supporter who represents Alabama. But both are secretaries of state, and when they testified side-by-side before Congress on Wednesday -- she in a blue dress and he in a red tie -- they repeatedly insisted they were friends ready to work together to strengthen the nation’s voting system.

Benson and Merrill called on the federal government to provide more funding and resources for states and localities to address the issue. This weekend, they’re leading 18 other secretaries of state on a voting-rights history tour of Alabama with the hope of inspiring further bipartisan collaboration.

"It’s the first time in our country’s history where you’ve got the chief election officers collectively, Democrats and Republicans, going to Selma to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge together," Benson told Governing.

The question is whether the secretaries can bridge enough of their differences to unite around federal legislation to improve election security.

Benson and Merrill appeared alongside cybersecurity experts before the U.S. Committee on House Administration this week, more than two years after Russia's cyberattack on American election systems during the 2016 presidential campaign.

"There are several reasons to believe the threat against our election infrastructure will be even greater in 2020," said Larry Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, in his opening remarks. "Russians will have had four years to leverage knowledge gained in 2016 to do more harm." In addition, he said, the U.S. could face hacking threats from other countries, including China, Iran and North Korea.

Norden, Benson, Merrill and every other witness at the hearing asked for more federal funding for election security. They agreed on several ways to improve it -- replacing paperless voting machines with paper ballots, updating old software and adopting post-election audits. Many states are already taking these actions, but the witnesses told Congress they need more support and direction from the federal government to implement them on a wide scale. 

"Local officials in 31 states told us that they must replace their equipment before the 2020 election, but two-thirds of these officials said that they do not have the adequate funds to do so," Norden testified. "And officials in 45 states currently use at least some systems that are no longer manufactured, with many reporting that they have difficulty finding replacements when parts fail."

Rep. Marcia Fudge, a Democrat from Ohio, asked how much a comprehensive upgrade of America's election systems would cost. Norden relayed the Brennan Center's estimate that "it would cost more than $300 million to replace all remaining paperless voting machines in the United States and more than $700 million to replace voting machines that are currently over a decade old." Marian Schneider, president of the nonpartisan election reform group Verified Voting, told Fudge the allocation of $1.2 billion proposed in H.R. 1 would be "a good start." 

But many congressional Republicans are opposed to H.R. 1. GOP Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the ranking member of the House committee, has said that he objects to the fact that the legislation would "force states to allow online voter registration, automatic voter registration and same-day voter registration with no safeguards."

This is where the secretaries of state diverge.

"I would prefer to have less strings attached from the federal government, if they choose to make an allocation," Merrill, the Republican, told Governing. "Every state's needs are not the same." He's opposed to federal funding being tied to same-day or automatic voter registration mandates. He thinks states and localities should be free to choose the election system right for them. Instead, he proposed "a centralized effort to evaluate the effectiveness of election equipment." He wonders if the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an independent federal agency created in 2002, could publish something akin to Consumer Reports for voting technology to help states and localities make smart purchasing decisions.

But Benson, the Democratic secretary of state, says "local variation can lead to potential vulnerabilities." She says it’s "low-hanging fruit" for the federal government to ensure all election systems meet certain basic standards.

Their priorities also differ on the issue of voter fraud. While it doesn't appear to be a concern for Benson, Merrill mentioned the problem in his testimony, noting that six people in his state were convicted of crimes related to voter fraud. The Brennan Center says voter fraud is "vanishingly rare."

Benson hopes this weekend’s gathering with other secretaries will be "a sincere effort to find common ground." She approached Merrill about the Alabama trip at a National Association of Secretaries of State meeting back in February, knowing that reforming elections isn’t something you can do alone.

"The threats to the security of our elections didn’t begin in 2016, we know for certain they won’t end in 2020," Benson told the House committee. "Only through a unified approach and long-term commitment and investment can we adequately support our election infrastructure and provide a voting system in which Americans will rightly place their trust."

Fudge, however, ended her questioning saying she was "more concerned now then when you came in about how easily our systems are compromised."

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