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House GOP refuses to renew election security funding as Democrats fume over Russian interference

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) decried the GOP-backed vote on a spending bill that excludes new money for election security grants to states. (Video: U.S. House)

House Republicans on Thursday voted down a Democratic effort to increase election security spending, as Democrats accused the GOP of refusing to stand up to Russia over interference in U.S. elections.

In a vote along party lines, Republicans rejected Democrats’ motion for more funding, unmoved by Democrats’ vigorous pleas and chants of “USA! USA!” on the House floor.

The election security funding vote came amid a national controversy over Russian election interference, and it comes days after President Trump appeared to accept Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s contention that Russia did not intervene in the 2016 presidential race — even though U.S. intelligence agencies say otherwise.

“Now is the time to double down on our efforts to prevent election hacking,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) declared ahead of the vote. “The American people are watching, and we must ensure that we — unlike our president — are on the right side of history at this pivotal moment in our democracy.”

Republicans dismissed the Democrats’ effort as theatrics, contending that Congress had fully funded states’ election security needs over the years and that states still have plenty of grant money left to spend from a $380 million allocation for 2018.

“Over the past decade you’ve seen billions of dollars funded, by Republicans and Democrats, in our bipartisan appropriations each year to do exactly that, secure elections here at home,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) said.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, discounted the need for any new security spending.

President Trump said ''no" when asked if he thought Russia was still targeting the U.S. The White House says Trump was rejecting the question not answering it. (Video: Reuters)

“I know what we need for safe and secure elections, and that’s voter ID,” Jordan said.

The vote came on a procedural motion by Democrats aimed at adding $380 million in state election security grants for 2019 to a broader spending bill for the Treasury Department, the judiciary and related agencies. Republicans, arguing that they’ve fully funded the grants program over the years, excluded any new funding for it in the spending bill.

The Democrats’ motion failed with 182 “yes” votes and 232 “no” votes

After defeating the motion, Republicans passed the broader spending bill — paired with a different spending bill for interior and environment programs — on a vote of 217 to 199.

The Senate version of the financial services spending bill also excluded new money for election security grants. It passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on a bipartisan vote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced Thursday that he was tasking the chairmen of the Banking and Foreign Relations committees with holding hearings on sanctions legislation and recommending any additional measures that could deter Russian interference.

The debate highlighted the fitful commitment from Congress and the Trump administration to ensuring state election security at a moment when the debate over Russian attempts to hack U.S. elections is at a fever pitch.

The federal Election Assistance Commission that administers the election security grant program to states currently has only two of four commissioners, not enough to form a quorum and approve new “Voluntary Voting System Guidelines” against which voting systems can be tested to determine if they meet required standards.

Moreover, the bulk of $3.6 billion authorized under the Help America Vote Act, which was passed in the wake of the contested 2000 presidential election, was sent to states well over a decade ago to upgrade voting systems. In many cases, those systems now need new upgrades.

With states responsible for administering their own elections, a patchwork of voting systems exists across the country, with varying degrees of reliability and sophistication.

And election experts note that the law passed in response to the 2000 presidential recount did not foresee the challenges facing elections today. But apart from the $380 million approved for this year — which was the first new spending on election security grants in years — Congress has not stepped in with a new pot of money or directions on how to spend it.

In Illinois, the $13.2 million received this year will be used to create a Cyber Navigator Program aimed at putting all 108 local election authorities on a secure data network and providing cybersecurity training and risk assessments. But according to Matt Dietrich, public information officer at the Illinois State Board of Elections, the money will not stretch to help local election authorities replace voting systems used at polling places on Election Day.

By contrast, in 2005 Illinois received $144 million that allowed the state to replace voting equipment in local jurisdictions.

“We’re hopeful that this year’s allotment will lead to future [Help America Vote Act] grants in larger amounts,” Dietrich said.

At the moment, Congress appears to have no plans to make that happen.