Capital Beat: N.H. secure election funds generate praise, curiosity

Published: 3/31/2018 10:36:14 PM

Last week’s $1.3 trillion federal spending deal brought an easily-overlooked boost for New Hampshire: a $3.1 million supplement to strengthen its election infrastructure. The money was announced at a time of growing unease at the prospect of foreign interference, and many were quick to cheer.

“Additional security improvements will help ensure that Granite Staters continue to have faith in our electoral system,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said of the funds.

But the amount still up in the air bears noting.

We don’t know when the money might arrive, or how soon the Granite State will get it ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections. We don’t know how the application process will be structured, what strings or promises might be attached. The federal Election Assistance Commission, which administers the funds, has given vague guidance so far; a spokeswoman said the office was not available to comment Friday.

We don’t know whether the Legislature will approve the $155,000 state match – nor even the process or timeline by which that money might be appropriated.

And above it all is the biggest unknown: how the money, if approved, might be spent. It’s a point that Secretary of State Bill Gardner says is still to be determined by his office. And it’s one that could play into the burgeoning race for his seat.

“The state has some significant flexibility in terms of which kinds of election issues it chooses to utilize money for,” said Bud Fitch, elections legal counsel to the office.

The new infusion of funds has been welcomed by some states looking anxiously to security upgrades ahead of the next presidential election. It follows the tradition of the legislation that facilitates it: the Helping America Vote Act (HAVA), which in 2002 allocated over $3 billion funds to states, including $18 million for the Granite State.

This time around, the funds are more modest – $380 million overall. But New Hampshire’s $3.1 million leaves plenty of room for spending flexibility.

New Hampshire Campaign for Voting Rights, a subgroup of the national advocacy group America Votes, has a few suggestions.

“This federal grant is a chance to ensure that our election systems are as secure and modern as possible to protect against the threat of foreign interference,” America Votes state director Liz Wester said last week. The money, she said, should be targeted toward upgrading ballot counting machines around the state, some of which are decades old.

Wester has other ideas, too. Among them: using the money to fund random audits of voting machines to ensure accuracy; setting it aside to join the Electronic Registration Information Center to prevent duplicate votes and increase voter registration; and saving it for the eventual purchase of “electronic pollbooks” – digitized voter checklists to allow town clerks to speed up lines at the polls.

But priority number one, Wester says, is security. Ahead of the 2016 elections, U.S. intelligence agencies had evidence that seven states’ voter registration systems were compromised by Russian-based attackers, NBC reported in February. New Hampshire was not one, but the revelation should still cause alarm, Wester said.

“How can we confirm that that is not going to be something that happens in 2018 to New Hampshire?” she said, advocating for using the new funds to strengthen New Hampshire’s system.

Colin Van Ostern, one of Gardner’s emergent challengers for his seat, agreed with those priorities, particularly security. “We should go directly to our local election officials to ask them what are weak points – what’s least secure,” he said.

Former state representative and Secretary of State candidate Peter Sullivan, meanwhile, argued for a comprehensive study to be undertaken at the municipal level with the funds: “We need to find out how voter information is being stored and how that’s being secured,” he said.

But Gardner has a different vision for the funds. To start, the longstanding election official emphasized Friday, New Hampshire has a proud tradition of staying frugal with the money it’s received through the HAVA bill.

In 2002, when the Granite State received its $18 million tranche, it didn’t do as other states did and shell out for the new trend of paperless voting machines. It kept the traditional paper ballots and instead used the money to build a centralized database, hire workers to conduct training with poll workers and fulfill the requirements set by the new law.

Sixteen years later, as hacking concerns have caused many states regret and reverse their machine purchases, New Hampshire is still sitting on a healthy $10 million remainder, Gardner said. The additional $3 million, he said, could nicely supplement the existing fund, he said, and allow the state to continue maintaining its systems, employing its training workers and rolling out a new series of accessible voting machines.

In other words, nothing to shatter the mold.

Further, Gardner said, New Hampshire’s system doesn’t need a major security overhaul. The same paper-based system the state refused to change in 2002 has served it well through the present day, he said. It is precisely the antiquated nature of the state’s technology that has kept it so secure, he and others in his office argued.

“These little things that we do have all been tied to paper,” Gardner said. “And it’s old fashioned and it’s easy to make fun of it, but one very important thing that I’ve learned here is the simpler the better, because the simpler the process, the fewer moving parts, the less breakdowns you’re going to have.”

“They’ve been around for a while, they work and their security is benefited by being older generation tech and not being sophisticated,” he added of the machines.

Precisely which vision for the use of the money wins out is hard to predict. Applications have not been set yet, though Gardner said the money may not be available until October at the earliest. And the federal Commission could still impose its own preferences – as could the Legislature when it decides whether to set aside the 5 percent state match to get the funds.

But with 2018 elections just around the corner, the wisdom of how the state ultimately spends its new money will soon be on display.

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