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Despite Security Push, Kentucky Struggles To Update Voting Machines

Despite worries from election security experts, Kentucky will be one of only a few states in 2020 that's still using some voting machines that don’t produce a paper trail — an industry standard to verify election results.

The reason is one that Kentuckians have heard often: there isn’t enough money, especially in a state that places much of the burden of election administration on local governments.

And despite recent transfusions of cash from the federal government for states to improve election security, the amount allocated to Kentucky in the most recent disbursement only represents about 10 percent of the overall need.

But state election officials say that voters have nothing to worry about. The outdated electronic-only voting machines used in the vast majority of Kentucky counties aren’t connected to the internet and there’s no evidence that they’ve been hacked before.

They say voters should be more mindful of interference that’s already taken place — misinformation, like former Gov. Matt Bevin’s unfounded claims that voter fraud took place in last year’s gubernatorial race.

Meanwhile Kentucky’s top election official, Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams, has placed much of his attention during this year’s legislative session towards passing a voter ID bill that experts say would do little to make elections more secure.

With no windfall on the horizon for Kentucky to bring its entire fleet of voting machines up to date, the situation is unlikely to change by Election Day.

Funding Fight

Kentuckians will head to the polls to vote for who to send to the White House, Congress, the state legislature, U.S. Senate and an assortment of local elections this year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is vying for his eighth term in office, has been at the center of the election security fight.

Last summer Democrats dubbed him “Moscow Mitch” after he initially blocked bills that would have shored up the nation’s election infrastructure in the wake of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

In September, McConnell relented, announcing support for $250 million in election security funding to help states improve their defenses and shore up voting systems. In the final budget, Congress sent states $425 million. That’s on top of nearly $380 million Congress set aside for election security in 2018.

According to numbers provided by Sen. McConnell's office, Kentucky received $6 million in the most recent round of funding.

State election officials say Kentucky did not get enough to replace voting machines statewide.

Kentucky State Board of Elections Executive Director Jared Dearing says the state needs much more to replace outdated voting machines.

“Overall we are talking somewhere in the neighborhood of $75 million to $100 million to replace voting systems in this state,” Dearing said.

Direct-electronic voting systems — machines that store voting results solely on a memory card without a paper backup — became the industry standard in the wake of the 2000 presidential election, when "hanging chads" left by Florida’s pull-lever paper balloting system created headaches for election officials.

But now there’s a new industry standard amid worries about hackers being able to meddle with election data.

Liz Howard used to be a deputy election commissioner in Virginia and now works at the Brennan Center, which monitors election security. She says every vote needs to have a paper backup.

“Having a paper backup is so important because when you use paperless voting machines, there is no record to go back to in the event of any questions or concerns about that election,” Howard said.

According to the Brennan Center, during this year's election Kentucky will likely be one of only eight states to still have some voting machines that don't create a paper trail.

Only a handful of Kentucky's 120 counties solely use voting machines that meet the industry's new gold standard, and have a paper backup, according to the State Board of Elections. They include the state’s most populous counties — Jefferson and Fayette (which recently replaced all of its machines) — as well as Marshall, Madison and Trimble counties.

At least 29 counties only use direct-electronic voting systems and the rest use a mix of machines that have electronic-only and paper backup machines.

State and local officials like Dearing from the Board of Elections say that Kentucky’s election infrastructure isn’t vulnerable to an attack because electronic voting machines aren’t networked or connected to the internet.

“Whether it is voter-verified paper audit trail, or whether it is direct recording electronic voting system that does not leave a paper trail...those systems are secure,” Dearing said.

But Howard points to federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, who have repeatedly said there is an ongoing threat of disrupting local election infrastructure.

“I think that there is an evolving threat environment and the continued use of paperless voting machines just doesn’t cut it today,” Howard said.

'A perfect storm of fiscal problems'

No matter the threat, it doesn’t look like Kentucky is going to get funding to replace its entire fleet of electronic voting machines by this year’s General Election.

Part of the problem is that Kentucky has a decentralized election system run by 120 county election boards across the state. And those cash-strapped county governments are ultimately in charge of buying new voting machines.

With or without the recent federal help, many can’t afford it.

Onzie Sizemore is the county clerk of Leslie County.

“I know it’s an expensive proposition for the county,” Sizemore said. “It stretches especially with coal country here where coal severance has been very much diminished.”

Don Blevins is the county clerk of Fayette County, which just replaced all its voting machines using some of the last round of federal election money. But he says most of the fiscal courts that run county governments across the state can’t keep up with larger counties like Fayette.

“That’s the real problem here. Fiscal courts are hurting for money right now, it’s awful,” Blevins said. “It’s like a perfect storm of fiscal problems for them.”

But some state election officials say the more urgent problem is misinformation, like those false claims of voter fraud former Gov. Matt Bevin promoted in last year’s election.

Blevins says that people are already trying to manipulate public perception at the detriment of confidence in elections.

“That is very doable and that is what is going on right now. We need to be much more guarded about protecting the public’s perception that we need to be about literally the systems,” Blevins said.

Kentucky’s new Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams did not make himself available for an interview for this story. In a statement he said he’s working to get more funding to upgrade voting machines and has asked for $6.4 million in federal funding for that purpose.

“Kentuckians across the political spectrum are concerned about the integrity of our elections. I ran for Secretary of State on a promise to take steps to enhance public confidence in our system, and I believe that is why I serve in this position today,” Adams said.

So far during this year’s legislative session Adams has pushed for a voter ID bill, the likes of which have done little to combat voter fraud in other states.

Adams and Dearing with the State Board of Elections say they have also asked for the legislature to boost funding for election security. This year’s legislative session ends on April 15th.

Correction: This story has been changed to reflect that Congress approved $425 million for states' to update their voting systems and that Kentucky received $6 million for its voting system.

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