The federal agency charged with helping states secure their election systems has a problem usually reserved for mom-and-pop stores and start-ups.
The four Election Assistance Commission members told Congress on Wednesday that their office is stifled by a shoe-string budget and has so few employees in some departments that a simple office flu could cripple operations.
"We have a number of areas where if someone is out of the office ... things grind to a halt," Commissioner Ben Hovland told the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. "And that's unacceptable."
For the EAC, created in 2002 to solve the raft of balloting problems exposed in the nearly tied Bush v. Gore presidential contest, the stakes couldn't be higher: With the first 2020 presidential primary seven months away, states and local governments are looking to the EAC for help certifying voting equipment, countering cyberthreats and dispersing grants to run flaw-free elections.
"There is no shortage of ambition at the EAC when it comes to supporting this work," all four commissioners said in a statement to the committee, "but there is a stark shortage of funds for such activities."
One bright spot for the EAC is that all four seats on the board are filled for the first time in almost a decade, and the group is speaking with one cross-partisan voice. But the agency's budget has been cut by more than half during this decade and the number of employees is down to 22 from nearly 50. The current $8 million appropriation, Hovland said, is actually less than what's allocated to fix potholes by Kansas City, Mo.
"That's unbelievable," independent Angus King of Maine responded. "I mean, that's like cutting the budget of the fire department in the middle of a five-alarm fire. We've never had such a serious attack on our electoral system as we've had in the last three years — and your budget is 50 percent of what it was nine years ago?"
Last year, Congress allocated $380 million in grant funding to help states improve their election systems and infrastructure, but the money has gone only so far, state election officials have told Congress.
It's still up in the air how much, if any, additional money will get appropriated for such purposes in time for the presidential contest. But Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri, who's also No. 3 in the GOP majority's leadership, reiterated the Senate is unlikely to consider any election security policy legislation this year.
"At this point, I don't see any likelihood that those bills would get to the floor if we mark them up," he said.
Asked why by Minority Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois, Blunt in part blamed the decision by the new House Democratic majority to push through a package this winter that combined highly polarizing campaign finance and ethics provisions with election security proposals that enjoy bipartisan support.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell "is of the view that this debate reaches no conclusion," Blunt said. "And frankly, I think the extreme nature of HR 1 from the House makes it even less likely we are going to have that debate."