“I’m proud the financial services and the general government bill included a bipartisan amendment providing another $250 million from the administration to help states improve their defenses and shore up their voting systems,” McConnell said. “I’m proud to have helped develop this amendment and co-sponsor it in committee.”
“That will bring our total allocation for election security — listen to this — to more than $600 million since fiscal 2008,” he added.
Democrats hailed the news but said more needs to be done.
“Leader McConnell kept saying we don’t need the money,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Thursday. “I made umpteen speeches here at this chair, and the Republican leader denied the need. But now, thank God, he has seen the light. We need more money for election security; ask election officials, Democrat or Republican, throughout the country.”
McConnell spokesman Doug Andres said Schumer was mischaracterizing the Republican leader’s position and maintained that the amendment was “really a continuation of previous years’ funding.”
The Senate Appropriations Committee agreed by bipartisan voice vote Thursday to add the $250 million for election security grants to a spending bill covering financial services and general government operations.
A final figure would have to be negotiated with the House, which has approved $600 million, and the compromise legislation would have to be passed by both chambers.
In August 2018, Senate Republicans voted down an effort to direct an extra $250 million toward election security ahead of the midterms. At the time, only one Republican, Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), voted for the additional funds.
Senate Republicans, including McConnell, have also blocked numerous Democratic efforts to bring election security legislation to the floor, including measures that would have authorized funding to update voting equipment. Congress did not agree to any election security spending in fiscal 2019.
McConnell has defended Republican moves to block the bills by arguing that Congress and the Trump administration have already taken steps to combat foreign interference. Last year, for instance, Congress approved $380 million to improve election security systems. The Senate also passed legislation to bar people who have interfered with U.S. elections from obtaining visas to enter the United States.
Andres disputed the notion that Thursday’s statement represented a turnaround, arguing that McConnell’s approach has been consistent in providing funding to the states through the appropriations process.
The House-passed legislation, he added, has “strings attached” to its funding and is an “election reform bill designed to look like election security.”
Current and former Trump administration officials have continued to sound the alarm that more needs to be done: In his testimony before Congress in July, former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III warned that foreign election interference efforts were happening “as we sit” in the hearing rooms.
On Thursday, Schumer touched on those exhortations, noting that lawmakers “have been warned time and again by our national security leaders — nearly all of them Republicans appointed by President Trump — that China and, of course, Russia are potential threats in 2020.”
Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee echoed Schumer’s remarks, arguing that the funds are critical to national security.
“We know that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election, targeted our election infrastructure. . . . This problem was not isolated to 2016, and we cannot be complacent now,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the top Democrat on the panel, which is led by Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.).
Eric Rosenbach, a former Pentagon chief of staff who directs Harvard University’s Defending Digital Democracy program, also praised the turnaround from McConnell, saying the initial funding was insufficient to arm states against possible intrusions from nation-state actors.
“It’s a sign that even Mitch McConnell believes this is a serious issue,” Rosenbach said in an interview, attributing the move less to pressure from Democratic lawmakers than to what he described as the plain fact that the nation’s election infrastructure is insufficiently resilient. “Even McConnell needs to set politics aside and do what’s right for the country.”
McConnell, meanwhile, argued that the Trump administration “has made enormous strides to help states secure their elections without giving Washington new power to push the states around.”
“That’s how we continued the progress we saw in 2018, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” he said in his floor remarks. “This is exactly the kind of positive outcome that is possible when we stop posturing for the press and let Chairman Shelby and Senator Leahy conduct a bipartisan committee process.”
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) offered a note of caution, noting that much of the money provided to states in 2018 remains unspent and arguing that more oversight is needed. “We’re just handing states money, and they’re glad to take it, but we’re not even requiring they spend it at this point,” said Lankford, who sits on the Appropriations Committee.
The money that was allocated in spring 2018 has all been distributed to the states, which were given five years to spend it, according to Thomas Hicks, head of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
“Most of them have spent it on cybersecurity and new voting equipment, and we need more,” Hicks said Tuesday at a symposium hosted by the Federal Election Commission on the topic of digital disinformation and threats to democracy.
Isaac Stanley-Becker and Paul Kane contributed to this report.