House Majority Leader looks back on 20 years since the first federal electoral systems legislation was enacted and how the fight for electoral system legitimacy has changed
The first modern piece of federal legislation addressing the infrastructure of voting systems across the country, known as the Help America Vote Act, celebrates its 20th anniversary on Saturday.
HAVA was created on a bipartisan basis after the 2000 presidential election, which was decided by the Supreme Court after extremely thin margins revealed the need to fix antiquated voting systems. As Congress has become more partisan, funding for HAVA has dropped significantly.
Less than two weeks before the country faces its first midterm election since the 2020 presidential race, where former President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede and efforts to overturn the results culminated in the attack by his supporters on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, co-author of the development of HAVA 20 years ago, reflected on the importance of this legislation in a wide-ranging conversation with CNN.
“It was clearly a partisan era, as it is today,” Hoyer told CNN in an interview, comparing the fallout from the 2000 election to current election issues. “But there wasn’t the dishonesty to claim something that wasn’t fact.”
Lawmakers crafted HAVA after the fate of the 2000 presidential election between then-Democratic candidate Al Gore and then-Republican candidate George W. Bush received 537 votes out of nearly 6 million voters in Florida, and exposed a wide range of voting irregularities. Phrases such as “hanging chads” when a ballot is not fully perforated, “pregnant chads”, when paper ballots are dimpled but not punctured, and “butterfly ballots”, where the wrong Ballot design confused voters about which candidate they were voting for, dominating the national conversation until the Supreme Court finally ruled that Bush had won.
When passed in 2002, HAVA made sweeping reforms to voting systems across the country to improve the administration of elections for federal office. He created a new federal agency, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), which still exists today, to help advise states in their election administration, set national guidelines and create a national program for testing, certification and decertification of voting systems. The legislation also provided grants to states, which the EAC was responsible for overseeing, to address a wide range of issues, including updating voting systems, creating new training for election officials, particularly for students, and even making all polling stations available to people with disabilities.
“The EAC is the only federal agency focused exclusively on election administration and our mission has grown over the years since the transition from HAVA to play a critical role in supporting election officials across the country,” said EAC President Thomas Hicks said in a statement to CNN. “The EAC is a critical component to ensuring free, fair, secure, and accessible elections across the United States.”
HAVA has sought to restore faith in the country’s electoral system, Hoyer said, but the dynamic has changed — a growing number of Americans are unwilling to accept results they don’t agree with.
“It’s not so much the technology that’s at issue now,” Hoyer told CNN. “That was the case in 2000. Now it’s a question of whether or not people are willing to accept outcomes that the courts have time and again ruled legitimate.”
Another key difference between now and then, Hoyer said, was that the two sides could find common ground in the early 2000s when it came to election-related funding.
“They weren’t hostile to it in 2002,” Hoyer said of then-Republicans, who had a majority in the House when HAVA was signed into law. “We got an overwhelming majority of Democrats and Republicans voting for the creation of HAVA, state funding, and the provisions we provided for the advisory capacity of the Election Assistance Commission. Unfortunately, this bipartisan commitment no longer exists.
In the fallout from the 2020 presidential election, Trump and his allies repeatedly questioned the validity of voting systems, making false claims about foreign interference and voting machine irregularities. Courts across the country have struck down Trump’s claims about problems with voting machines. One company, Dominion Voting Systems, sued Trump’s campaign and conservative media allies for defamation.
A wave of candidates refusing the elections manufactured in the mold of Trump have appeared on the scene since Trump’s defeat, creating new concern that those who could potentially oversee the election may not accept future results with which they are not. Okay.
Threats against nonpartisan poll workers and fears about security at polling stations also increased. As the 2022 midterm elections approach, states across the country have been scrambling to further secure their polling places and poll workers in anticipation of disruptions.
“It’s a sad day in America where there are threats against election officials, threats against voters and the creation of an atmosphere around voting that is perceived as dangerous,” Hoyer said. “These are despotic countries that present their citizens with such an environment, and I hope that Republicans, Democrats and Independents will all reject this type of violence. But unfortunately, we have seen that this is not always the case.
Hoyer believes that if more funding had been given to HAVA over the years, the American people would have had more faith in the country’s voting systems and it would have been harder for election lies related to voting systems to spread.
“Frankly, if we had funded HAVA effectively over the years, I think we’d be much more likely to have an audience that would conclude, ‘Look, the machine we used was honest, it was transparent, it works well and it reflects our vote,” the Majority Leader said.
HAVA initially provided approximately $3.5 billion in funding, but the commitment to fully repay programs enacted by legislation has dwindled.
In 2011, when Republicans reclaimed the House, HAVA’s broad funding languished. Over the years, Republicans have sought to abolish the EAC.
More recently, Congress appropriated a total of about $800 million in 2018 and 2020 combined. In 2018, Congress provided $380 million in election security grants due to bipartisan concerns about Russian interference in the election. A second $400 million was earmarked in the CARES Act in 2020 to help states run their elections during the Covid pandemic.
In December 2021, secretaries of state and election officials across the country sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking for $5 billion in the Biden administration’s next budget, as part of a broader request to the Congress to allocate $20 billion in funding to local and state election administrators for secure election infrastructure over the next 10 years.
National Association of Secretaries of State communications director Maria Benson said in a statement to CNN, “NASS is proud of the work done by our members responsible for elections to invest in their electoral systems and processes.” Benson asked Congress to reference the organization’s resolution on stable federal funding for election security and asked lawmakers to directly seek input from secretaries of state when considering funding for HAVA at the coming.
Hicks told CNN, “Election officials have historically done more with less, and the EAC has distributed and administered $880 million in congressional HAVA election security grants over the past four years to support them. But the EAC has heard from election officials across the country that consistent funding is needed to support their short- and long-term planning.
Congress is currently deliberating on its government funding bill before the mid-December deadline, which could include more funding for HAVA. Hoyer said he hopes Republicans come to the table and funding is approved, but he acknowledged the roadblocks Republicans have put in place when it comes to funding HAVA.
“The way we resolve our differences is through elections,” Hoyer said. “And if these elections have no merit, then as we have seen in the insurgency, some people may be incentivized to try to establish an outcome through violence, not through voting. And it is very dangerous for our democracy, and for the stability of our country. It is a great fear that I have.