Only twice in its history has Congress provided any funding to the states for election administration. Mitch McConnell played an instrumental role both times.
In 2002, to address the shortcomings of our nation’s system of election administration that were painfully revealed in the 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). This bipartisan legislation mandated that states improve their voting systems and voter registration databases. It also authorized over $3.5 billion of federal funds to help with implementation, the first ever federal election authorization.
Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell was the Republican Senate champion for HAVA, and the bill was often called the Ney-Hoyer-Dodd-McConnell Help America Vote Act, after the four main Congressional champions.
As a result of HAVA, during my time as Secretary of State, Kentucky received over $30 million dollars to help us improve our elections. We used those dollars to upgrade voting systems in every precinct, enhance our statewide voter registration database, and to improve to accessibility of polling places across the Commonwealth.
In the wake of foreign attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, in 2018, Congress appropriated $380 million to assist states with election security upgrades. Of the $380 million, Kentucky received nearly $6 million.
Once again, Mitch McConnell, this time as Senate Republican Leader, played a key role in making such funding available to the states. Given his power and influence as Republican leader, it is no exaggeration to say that the funding would not have happened without McConnell’s leadership and support.
That’s because despite what some in the media or his political opponents insist, for nearly two decades, the Republican Leader has played a critical role in improving our election security.
This year, McConnell will have another opportunity to demonstrate his leadership on this issue.
That’s because, while states have done a good job of spending the $380 million appropriated last year, as indicated by a recent report, more work remains. For example, Jared Dearing, Executive Director of Kentucky’s State Board of Elections, recently testified as part of a federal Elections Assistance Commission panel about Kentucky’s need for additional resources to help our county clerks offices “participate in what is national security.”
The House agreed about the urgency of the situation and included $600 million for election security in their appropriations bill.
When the relevant Senate Appropriations Subcommittee did not include any funding in its initial mark-up, Leader McConnell helped to develop and co-sponsored an amendment adding $250 million for election security to the appropriations package. While the appropriations process has a long way to go – and differences between the House and Senate need to be worked out – this is an extremely positive development for those who believe that, given the threat to our national security, the federal government must do something.
After all, we don’t want to wake up the day after the 2020 election, knowing that we could have done more. Now is the time to fund those security enhancements.
Most of the time, federal, one-size-fits-all election legislation is misguided. States and local governments possess the primary responsibility for administering elections and states should therefore bear the primary burden of funding those election administration expenses. That happens to be the position of the National Association of Secretaries of State, an organization that I led in 2009-10.
This is an exception. When our national security is being threatened by rogue actors interfering with our elections, the federal government has a clear duty to act. Foreign efforts to disrupt elections are targeting all of us—they don’t care about a specific county or state but are looking for any vulnerability that will undermine our values of American democracy.
This view is shared by many others generally opposed to increased federal involvement in elections. For example, the current members of the National Association of Secretaries of State recently sent Senate leadership a letter making this very case.
In addition, a growing number of fellow conservatives, including leaders like Grover Norquist and groups such as FreedomWorks, support federal funding to address this threat.
That’s why, when the appropriations process concludes, I am confident that Congress, thanks to Mitch McConnell’s leadership, will make history a third time and provide meaningful funding to our state and local governments for election security. After all, our national security depends upon it.
Trey Grayson, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd, served as Kentucky’s Secretary of State from 2004 to 2011.