Despite intelligence community warnings, the Senate majority leader had long opposed more funding to ward off foreign interference in the 2020 election.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Thursday came out in favor of an appropriations bill that would provide $250 million to federal election security efforts.
The move came as a swift about-face for McConnell, who has repeatedly fought attempts to increase funds available for states to bolster their election infrastructure.
“I’m proud the Financial Services and General Government bill will include a bipartisan amendment providing another $250 million ... to help states improve their defenses and shore up their voting systems,” McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor. “I’m proud to have helped develop this amendment and co-sponsor it in committee.”
Congress must now reconcile the Senate legislation with its House counterpart, which devotes $600 million to election security.
In recent weeks, Democrats have turned up the heat on McConnell and other Republicans, saying their opposition to election security funds would allow Russia and other adversaries to undermine the 2020 election with the same tactics they used in 2016. Last year, lawmakers appropriated some $380 million to secure states’ election infrastructure ahead of the 2018 midterms, and before Thursday, McConnell had blocked multiple attempts to provide additional funds.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, lawmakers and government officials called on states to stand up more secure voting infrastructure and adopt security protocols like paper ballots and audits that would keep adversaries from interfering in future races. While states have made significant improvements to their election systems in the years since—all but five had adopted paper ballots by the 2018 midterms—many still have more work to do before they meet security experts’ various recommendations.
On Thursday, Chris Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, called the Senate bill “a great step forward,” but noted states will need more reliable funding streams before they can make lasting improvements to their voting infrastructure.
Created last year to replace the Homeland Security Department’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, CISA is responsible for coordinating the federal government's efforts to defend elections against hacking and other interference attempts. While the agency has succeeded in getting state and local officials to accept the federal government’s help, Krebs said they’re still in the process of hammering out roles and responsibilities when it comes to issues like funding.
But if the government is going to support those efforts, consistency will be key, according to Krebs. Hiring election officials and upgrading infrastructure is a long-term process, he said, and “mass injections of cash” every few years hamper states’ ability to plan those improvements.
“As I talk to secretaries of state, state election directors, the thing they want more than anything with funding ... is consistency and something they can set their budgeting clocks by,” Krebs said in a conversation with reporters at the CISA Cybersecurity Summit. “If the federal government is going to play in this space, we have to be dependable partners.”
Looking beyond the 2020 race, Krebs also suggested the government create an “innovation fund” that would support long-term infrastructure improvements and research into new protocols and procedures that would bolster election security.