Election Commission Plans for More Secure Votes and Elections

February 17, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
Cobb County election staff start the recount of the presidential ballots Friday at the Jim Miller Park Event Center in Marietta on November 13, 2020. (Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

WASHINGTON — A federal election official described the 2020 vote as one of the most difficult in American history during a congressional hearing Monday.

The COVID-19 pandemic, reports of attempted foreign cyberattacks and allegations of fraud by President Donald Trump and his supporters played havoc with officials’ effort to run a fair and orderly election, according to lawmakers at the House Appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government hearing.

“It was an extremely stressful year and there is a level of burnout among election officials,” said Benjamin Hovland, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. “The job has never been harder.”

The subcommittee called the hearing to review the performance of the Election Assistance Commission and to determine what needs to be done to prevent problems during future elections.

The Election Assistance Commission is a government agency that acts as an information clearinghouse on election administration. It administers federal grants to states, adopts guidelines and certifies voting equipment. It also maintains a national mail voter registration form.

The Commission is operating with a $15.5 million budget this year. Hovland said the kinds of challenges demonstrated by the last federal election show it needs to be a $100 million a year agency.

Despite the obstacles, “This was the best-administered election I have seen in my career,” Hovland told the subcommittee.

Some lawmakers said they were concerned that Russians and other foreign adversaries might interfere with U.S. elections.

“Our enemies will not be taking a break so neither should we,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., who chairs the subcommittee on financial services and general government.

Foreign influence over U.S. elections arose initially during the 2016 presidential campaign, when the Russian government tried to sway the vote in favor of Trump while at the same time increasing political discord in the United States. A subsequent investigation showed the operation was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Code named Project Lakhta, it included creating thousands of social media accounts that purported to come from Americans. They reached millions of social media users with messages that supported extremist groups and supported Trump but denounced his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

“For years now our right to vote has been threatened by foreign adversaries,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

She suggested that Congress give the Election Assistance Commission the resources it needs to stop foreign interference.

Doubts about the integrity of the election continued in the 2020 cycle. A Quinnipiac University poll published last month showed that 37% of voters believe there was widespread voter fraud in the election.

The lawmakers also wanted to know what could be done to better inform voters about their options, such as for voter registration and mail-in votes.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., said the Election Assistance Commission’s efforts to inform voters about upcoming elections can overlook underserved communities. The efforts sometimes included pre-recorded phone calls.

“These are robocalls going into homes,” she said. Often they are ignored or ineffective, Lawrence said.

Hovland said the Election Assistance Commission is trying to ramp up its outreach to voters but lacks the resources to reach everyone. He agreed that voters sometimes pass up their own opportunities.

“A lot of people aren’t participating because they’re not familiar with the process,” he said.

He suggested wider use of the internet to reach voters. He also wants to recruit more qualified poll workers with an increased budget from Congress.

Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., recommended that federal aid for state elections be carefully targeted “to the area of greatest need.”

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