The funding deal ditches stronger mandates from the House version in favor of broader language that gives states wide latitude on how to spend the funds.
A spending deal reached by Democrats and Republicans would give the Election Assistance Commission $425 million in grant funding for states to implement election upgrades.
Earlier this year, the House set passed $600 million in election security-related funding, while the Senate set aside $250 million for the same purpose. The deal cut in Congress gives states their second tranche of federal funding to upgrade election infrastructure in as many years. It also requires states to provide 20% in matching funds within two years.
House leaders had imposed stricter mandates in their version that would have steered states towards purchasing voting machines with paper audit trails and implementing risk limiting audits. The compromise deal agreed to contains broader language.
It specifies the money may be used "for activities to improve the administration of elections for federal office, including to enhance election technology and make election security improvements," language that could open the door to a much wider variety of spending decisions by states.
States may use the funding to for several purposes specified in a joint explanatory statement, including replacement of "voting equipment that only records a voter's intent electronically with equipment that utilizes a voter-verified paper record" as well as on post-election audit systems, computer system upgrades that address vulnerabilities identified by scans or assessments, cybersecurity training for election officials and "other activities that will improve the security of elections for Federal office."
Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice said called the deal "an important step" but stressed that "this funding should not be Congress's only investment in election security." He also urged states to use this one-time infusion of federal dollars wisely.
"Recipients of this federal funding must use it to increase the security of our nation's election infrastructure, and ensure that in the face of cyberthreats, all Americans are able to vote with confidence in free and fair elections," Norden said in a statement.
Some election security experts have warned that tougher language was needed to ensure states do not repeat the same mistakes when buying election technology. In October, election auditing specialist and Def Con Voting Village member Maggie MacAlpine told FCW that Congress giving money to states without any strings attached "might make the situation much worse."
The bill also funds the EAC's own operations at $15.2 million, up $6 million from 2019 and more than $3.2 million higher than the figure sought in the president's budget request. A congressional one-sheet said the funding will allow the EAC to "ensure that voting systems are tested to federal standards as well as provide information to support the voting process, and effective and efficient election administration."