By: Kristin Palmason
The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) enacted by Congress in 2012 with overwhelming bipartisan support, provides federal funds to states for the purpose of reforming the administration of elections, including upgrading voting equipment and eliminating punch-card and lever voting machines. As HAVA was enacted in response to the 2000 contested election of Bush v. Gore, which hinged on outdated voting equipment and “hanging chads,” HAVA funds were intended to streamline internal election processes and updating archaic voting systems. Arizona committed to using the funds to replace punch card voting systems, add touch screen equipment and update voter registration, provisional balloting, and grievance processes. By 2015, approximately $3.3 billion in HAVA funds for election assistance was awarded to states nationwide, with approximately $52.5 million awarded to Arizona.
Election security concerns again became a hot topic in 2016. In August 2016, the FBI informed Arizona officials that Russian hackers were targeting their election systems, describing the threat as “an eight on a scale of one to 10”. The incident involved a phishing email, designed to appear as if it was sent from an internal contact, to an election staffer in Gila County. The staffer opened the attachment which contained malware that was targeted to penetrate voter databases. In response to the unprecedented breach, Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan took the system offline while it was inspected for anomalies. The incident (and the other extensive hacking efforts by Russia during the 2016 election) highlighted a weakness in American election security efforts: states weren’t prepared for interference from a foreign power. As Regan said at the time: “We’ve never had to worry about foreign invaders coming in and trying to mess with our confidence and our election system”.
In 2018, $7.8 million in HAVA funds were awarded to Arizona. However, as per the program, the HAVA funds must be met with a 5% match from the state (approximately $373,000). In 2019, state legislators and the new Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) disagreed over appropriations in the new budget as funds for election administration were slashed by Republican legislators. The new budget restricts election security funds by 1.37 million, and forces Secretary Hobbs to return $750,000 of HAVA funds, as Arizona can’t afford the matching funds under the new budget. At the same time, lawmakers awarded $530,000 for a new “voter fraud unit,” despite a lack of evidence of voter fraud. Secretary Hobbs has not given up the fight, however, and in October 2019 she requested a $2 million increase in the budget for 2020, as well as one-time payment of $4.2 million for security upgrades.
Arizona has several large-scale security projects on its election-fortification wish list, but lacks the resources to carry them out. One high-priority item is replacing the aging and vulnerable voter registration database. This project requires approximately $7 million to $10 million, but Arizona has only $2.8 million of HAVA funds allocated to the project. Other election fortification initiatives include a cybersecurity assessment, and increased communication capabilities. Another critical weakness in Arizona’s voting systems is the ongoing use of aging voting equipment. In addition to being nearly impossible to maintain, as replacement parts are no longer manufactured, these machines run on old software which lacks updated security defenses and makes the machines vulnerable to attacks. The estimated total cost for replacing these machines is $40 million.