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Some States Say Federal Grants Aren't Enough To Secure Voting Systems


States across the country are receiving grants from the federal government to secure their voting systems ahead of the next election. In Texas, officials say they want to use most of that money to shore up the state's voter registration database. The federal government says Russians tried to hack a Texas election website in 2016. But as Ashley Lopez from member station KUT in Austin reports, some people worry the money won't be enough to make systems safer.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: The first time Dana DeBeauvoir ever voted, she says she cast her ballot on a lever machine. It's this big metal box with a bunch of tiny metal handles you crank to select the candidate of your choice. DeBeauvoir now administers elections in Austin, and she keeps one of those old machines in her office.

DANA DEBEAUVOIR: And then you're going to come down and you're going to say, I'm going to vote for this person for governor.

LOPEZ: These machines and others were banned by Congress when lawmakers passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002 after voting problems marred the 2000 election. That bill, also known as HAVA, set aside $3 billion in grants for states to replace their old voting machines. After reports of Russian hacking in 2016, Congress is funding HAVA grants again. But this time they're spending about a tenth of what they did the last time, which DeBeauvoir says is...

DEBEAUVOIR: Utterly inappropriate and completely insignificant amount when you look at the need. It's a 10-cent solution to a $25 problem.

LOPEZ: These grants would help states secure their voting systems. Texas is getting about $23 million. By comparison, the state received about $200 million from HAVA in 2002. Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the Texas secretary of state, says overall it's not a lot of money.

SAM TAYLOR: But - now, it's a lot of money when you're talking about cybersecurity. So it gives us actually a lot of resources to dole out to the counties who are looking to further secure their voter registration databases.

LOPEZ: States across the country are figuring out how they plan to spend their grant. Each state has to submit a spending proposal which the Election Assistance Commission has to sign off on.

DAN WALLACH: State by state, this issue is playing out in very different ways.

LOPEZ: That's Dan Wallach, a computer scientist at Rice University. He says each state administers elections in their own way and have very different vulnerabilities. Wallach says some states and local governments may supplement those grants and spend their own money on securing elections.

WALLACH: Not in, like, a deep way but in terms of, like, finding the biggest holes and doing their best to mitigate those holes. Hopefully that will get us through 2018.

LOPEZ: Dana DeBeauvoir in Austin says these resources are probably coming too late for this fall's election. That's why she says she didn't wait for a grant. DeBeauvoir has been using local resources for the past year to make Austin's voter registration database less hackable.

DEBEAUVOIR: But has every county in Texas been able to invest its resources in protecting voter registration upfront, right now? I doubt that. And I worry for the other counties.

LOPEZ: Another concern is that these grants won't help states buy new voting machines. But the Texas secretary of state's office says voter registration databases are more vulnerable because they're connected to the Internet. Officials say all federal money probably won't be spent by the 2018 election, but they're hopeful about 2020. And Dan Wallach with Rice University says all of this is better than nothing.

WALLACH: Now election officials are forced to grapple with security issues in their equipment. Just recognizing that we have a problem is the first step towards resolving it.

LOPEZ: Either way, counties in Texas and around the country will have to start replacing voting machines soon. And whether they will do that with federal, state or local funds this time is an open question. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.