With midterm elections seven months ahead, election officials in Illinois are racing to spend new federal dollars to improve election equipment — with a focus on new machinery and hiring of cybersecurity experts.
Congress has approved $380 million to upgrade equipment nationwide as part of its effort to prevent a repeat of 2016, when the Department of Homeland Security determined that Russian hackers tried to breach election systems in 21 states.
“Over the next seven months the voters if Illinois are going to face a statewide campaign effort from Governor Rauner, J.B. Pritzker, and Vladmir Putin,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. said at a press conference in Chicago on Monday.
Illinois is the only state to publicly acknowledge hackers penetrated its voter registration system and accessed 76,000 active voter records. No records were altered or deleted, but the attack made some jittery.
Illinois would get more than $13 million from the congressional plan, provided it puts up a 5 percent match. The State Board of Elections said it is adding $600,000 to its budget request for the spending year that begins July 1.
“Cybersecurity is certainly front and center on all the election official minds as are replacement of aging voting equipment. I think that’s going to cost more money than is currently available,” Steven Sandvoss, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections said.
He said the Board has not yet decided how the money will be allocated, but will have a proposal to the board on the 20th to meet the goal of getting funds to election officials as quickly as possible.
The federal funds are a fraction of the $147 million it got more than a decade ago from the federal Help America Vote Act, which allowed states to overhaul their voting systems. Compounding the fiscal problem: about $4 million a year in grants for voter-registration system security wasn’t available from the State Board of Elections for two years during a historic state budget stalemate.
“Why did we wait so long? Because many people in Washington were in complete denial,” Durbin said. “It should have been ten times this much, and if we were really serious about it, it should have been done last year.”
Illinois’ lack of election infrastructure investment has put the state in a tough spot, particularly given the federal government’s warning that another Russian attempt at interfering with the November election is likely.
“We’re vulnerable, and we have work to do,” U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill. said at the press conference. “I don’t want people to panic, I just want them to act accordingly given the concerns that are realistic.”
Even if the state had enough funds, there wouldn’t be enough time to completely overhaul its voting infrastructure before November. Under the Help America Vote Act, the last effort took years.
A key question in Illinois, then, is the best way to spend limited funds during a narrow window. State elections officials are moving cautiously.
For Cook County Clerk David Orr, modernizing equipment and hiring cybersecurity experts are priorities, though the federal grant would only cover a portion of the 30 to 35 million for new election equipment.
Chicago, where Board of Election Commissioners spokesman Jim Allen called the system “brittle but not broken,” is considering an upgrade. But in the nation’s third-largest city, that would cost tens of millions of dollars.
The federal Election Assistance Commission, overseeing the latest funding distribution, has suggested states replace paperless voting machines. Paperless machines can’t be audited, making it difficult to detect a breach.
Illinois’ voting machines leave a paper trail, putting it ahead of other states, according to Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. But Norden said Illinois uses devices called direct-recording electronic voting machines, which are prone to incorrectly record votes. That becomes an issue because voters often don’t check paper receipts to ensure their votes were recorded correctly.
The State Board of Elections said more than 13,000 direct-recording electronic machines are still in use. Replacing them could cost up to $4 million.
Norden adds that cybersecurity protections go beyond replacing machines. States should also protect their voter registration systems and implement better post-election audits to further strengthen public trust, he said.
“The most damaging thing that can be done is undermining people’s faith in democracy and potentially undermining their desire to participate and believe in our democratic institutions,” Norden said.