‘Time Is of the Essence:’ Experts Warn Election Officials Need More Money Now

A voter drops off their mail-in ballot in Willow Grove, Pa., in May. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Voters fearing Covid-19 will be reluctant to enter polling places in just 90 days, but experts warned Congress on Tuesday that vote-by-mail systems are underfunded and overburdened with the countdown on to November’s election.

House Homeland Security Chair Bennie Thompson warned against major changes to state and local election systems in the Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Innovation subcommittee hearing.

“It is absolutely critical that we make the current system work. Any finagling with that system puts the process in jeopardy,” the Mississippi Democrat said.

While bipartisan concerns over election security permeated Tuesday’s hearing, Democrats voiced frustration over the GOP-controlled Senate holding out voting on legislation that would provide millions of dollars to election systems across the country.

“As my Senate colleagues post their tributes to Congressman Lewis, I call on them to remember the cause that was so dear to him — access to the ballot box — and fight to include necessary voting reforms and the funding to implement them in the next Covid-19 package,” Thompson said.

The chairman noted that the House already passed the Election Security Act earlier this year to increase funding to states to defend against foreign interference, and the Heroes Act, with $3.6 billion for states to more effectively respond to election challenges brought on by Covid-19.

“Both bills are languishing in the Senate,” Thompson said.

Tuesday’s hearing comes less than a week after President Donald Trump suggested moving the date of the fast-approaching election.

“For the record, the president does not have the power to move the date of the election from November,” Congressman Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat, said at the outset.

Richmond pointed to a recent report from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, arguing that like any other voting method, risks are associated with mail-in ballots but can be mitigated.

“Further, I am not aware of any intelligence assessment indicating that foreign actors have expressed interest or capability to successfully interfere with vote-by-mail processes,” the subcommittee chair said.

The panel of experts joined Democrats in their concern over misinformation from the president on voting by mail, recently echoed by Attorney General William Barr in testimony to Congress.

“If they say that the process is easily rigged, that’s the kind of thing that can be easily amplified by foreign adversaries,” said David Levine with the Alliance for Securing Democracy German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Last week, Barr deflected questions on the president’s position on mail-in ballots increasing the risk of fraud and foreign interference in federal elections.

Asked by a Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee if he had evidence that backed the claim, the attorney general said: “No I don’t, but I have common sense.”

Levine, with the German Marshall Fund, also warned the committee that the Department of Homeland Security has found that state and local election systems are vulnerable due to a range of preventable risks.

He highlighted election officials using default passwords commonly known to outsiders and continuing to fall for phishing attacks used by hackers to install malware.

“The good news is that many of these issues can be easily fixed by Election Day. The bad news is that many local election offices are unable to make these fixes quickly because they lack the necessary resources or IT support,” Levine said.

The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated underlying election vulnerabilities, all four witnesses on Tuesday’s panel testified, stressing that federal funding to ensure robust vote-by-mail systems will help minimize confusion and risk come November.

“Voting by mail is proven, time-tested and secure, and dates all the way back to the Civil War,” Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, told the committee.

McReynolds said that long lines at polling places during primaries held in the early months of the Covid-19 outbreak are reason to implement vote-by-mail systems like those in Colorado, California and Utah.

Setting up ballot tracking systems is one step that states can take immediately to ensure a safer election, McReynolds stressed.

“It enhances security and it’s one of our top-level recommendations,” she added.

McReynolds also urged states to be creative, pointing to Kentucky using state fairgrounds to set up polling places that allow for social distancing.

She also suggested drive-through drop boxes where voters can deliver their signed ballot as another feasible solution, as well as federal indicia on all mail-in ballots as is the case with those cast by service members overseas.

“It would actually streamline a lot of the processes. The Post Office wouldn’t have to accept payments from seven or 8,000 different local election offices,” McReynolds said.

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