By Steven Kovac
A 2002 federal election law and the agency it created may have played a role in turning out votes for Joe Biden in the 2020 election, according to House Republicans.
The stated mission of the two taxpayer-funded federal initiatives—the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and the Election Assistance Commission (EAC)—is to improve voting.
Both came under fire from House Republicans last week for what happened in California just before the 2020 election.
On Aug. 27, 2020, the Associated Press reported that Golden State election officials signed a $35 million contract with a Washington-based public affairs firm for the purpose of getting people to vote during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to AP, the firm’s managing director was Anita Dunn, a senior strategist for the Biden campaign.
At a June 14, 2023, hearing of the House Committee on Administration, Chairman Bryan Steil (R-Wis.) riled up the panel’s Democrat members by displaying a blown-up screenshot from the company’s website that openly bragged about its support for Biden.
Steil identified the company, SKD Knickerbocker (SKDK) as the contractor.
He used the visual aid to support his allegation that a state government spent federal grant money for political purposes.
“The state of California was awarded $35 million in federal funds. California spent that money on a Get-Out-the-Vote campaign,” alleged Steil.
Pointing to the blown-up screenshot displayed on an easel, Steil alleged SKD Knickerbocker was “Biden’s campaign advisory firm.”
A Conflict of Interest?
“They listed themselves as a part of ‘Team Biden.’ If that’s not a conflict of interest, I don’t know what is.
“It is a violation of federal law to use HAVA grant funds for get-out-the-vote activity,” he alleged.
EAC Chairperson Christy McCormick, a witness invited to testify before the committee, agreed that get-out-the-vote efforts are “not an appropriate use of HAVA funds, but contended that SKDK used state money, not federal dollars, to fund its activities in California.
In response, Steil cited figures from the California Secretary of State’s office showing that $11.8 million paid to SKDK were federal funds.
He said the public becomes concerned any time they see “political activity funded with federal taxpayer dollars.”
Steil also alleged the so-called voter education campaign “targeted specific voters” and said the contract was awarded through an “expedited process.”
Before he began his rebuttal of Steil’s assertions, Ranking Member Joseph Morelle (D-N.Y.) jokingly said that he was impressed with the screenshot and asked the chairman to place it behind him during his remarks, implying that he also was proud to be on Team Biden.
Morelle then told the committee that the agreement was not a sole-source contract and that SKDK was one of several bidders.
He stated that the Inspector General of the EAC investigated the SKDK situation and determined that the California Secretary of State had executed the contract in accordance with EAC guidelines and the “funds were not used for unallowable” purposes.
McCormick asserted that in her overall experience, the EAC has found no misuse of HAVA funds.”
Steil criticized the HAVA for not dealing with terms like voter registration drive, voter education, and get-out-the-vote efforts, leaving the law open to subjective interpretation and potential abuse.
Chairman Steil granted Congressman Bob Good (R-Va.), who is not a member of the administration committee, a chance to address the hearing.
Good referenced a report from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency that identified nine vulnerabilities in the leading makes of voting machines.
He also said he hoped eventually to bring to a future committee hearing a tech expert who demonstrated how easy it is to hack into a voting machine connected to the internet.
Good said that at a recent roundtable gathering in Virginia the technician, “before our very eyes,” added and subtracted votes, changed votes, and reversed the outcome of a mock election.
Though maintaining that today’s voting machines are not connected to the internet, McCormick conceded that there are times on election night the machines are connected to the internet for result-reporting purposes.
Vulnerabilities Can Be Exploited
McCormick said, “Anomalies happen in the system. Vulnerabilities can be exploited for sure,” but added that EAC did not see any vulnerabilities exploited in 2022.
McCormick expects the system to be even more secure in 2024.
“There are security concerns with the older machines,” said EAC commissioner Donald Palmer.
He said the EAC uses “penetration testing” to assure the systems are accurate and reliable.
EAC vice-chairman Benjamin Hovland testified that across the country local election administrators are enduring “chronic resource issues.”
He said it is “unfortunate our election officials have to be “dependent on billionaires” due to “a failure of government.”
“Grant funding is crucial,” he said.
Poll Workers Leaving in Droves
McCormick told the committee that about 1 million poll workers operate election sites in more than 3,000 counties.
She said that in some jurisdictions whole election committees have resigned under the pressure of increased threats and inadequate funding.
Hovland said staffing challenges are aggravated by the local units’ “inability to pay competitive wages.”
EAC Commissioner Thomas Hicks testified that the No. 1 request of local election jurisdictions nationwide is for additional funding.
Hicks said the current environment is pitting tiny local jurisdictions against nation-states—even superpowers—in a war of misinformation and disinformation.
“For years EAC was underfunded,” said Morelle, who accused some Republicans of wanting to eliminate EAC.
EAC Inspector General Brianna Schletz, who oversees a staff of six and said she has no plans of expanding her department, pledged to safeguard federal expenditures through “transparent and independent oversight.”
She said her office is determined to do the best job possible with the funds it is allocated.
Schletz, who has been the IG since November 2021, told the hearing that in the past fiscal year, her team has dealt with 374 unique complaints.
Five Audits Underway
The IG office’s hotline received more complaints in the first six months of 2023 than in all of 2022.
Of these, more than 60 percent were determined to be nonviable, 13 percent were referred to the Department of Justice, and 22 percent were sent to the states for resolution, Schletz said.
She testified that her department was currently conducting five audits, with another seven in the pipeline.
Schletz confirmed to the committee that SKDK had received nearly $12 million in grant funding through its contract with the California Secretary of State in 2020.
Steil stated that EAC has the responsibility of taking measures to prevent situations like that from happening again. He said the way to increase voter turnout is to increase voter confidence that the election process is fair.