House majority leader reflects on 20 years since first federal voting systems legislation enactment and how the fight over voting system legitimacy has shifted
The first piece of modern federal legislation to address the infrastructure of voting systems across the country, known as 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 razor thin margins revealed the need to address antiquated voting systems. As Congress has become more partisan, funding for HAVA has significantly decreased.
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 with his supporters attacking the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a co-author in crafting HAVA 20 years ago, reflected on the importance of this legislation in a wide-ranging conversation with CNN.
“Clearly it was a partisan era, as it is today,” Hoyer told CNN in an interview, comparing the fallout from the 2000 election to the election issues now. “But there was not the dishonesty of claiming something that was not 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 came down to 537 votes out of almost 6 million cast in Florida, and exposed a wide range of ballot irregularities. Phrases like “hanging chads” when a ballot is not completely punched through, “pregnant chads,” when paper ballots are dimpled but not pierced, and “butterfly ballots,” where poor ballot design confused voters on which candidate they were voting for, dominated the national conversation until the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Bush had won.
When it passed in 2002, HAVA made sweeping reforms to voting systems across the country to improve the administration of elections for federal office. It established 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 the testing, certification and decertification of voting systems. The legislation also provided grants for states, which EAC was tasked with overseeing, to address a wide range of issues including updating voting systems, creating new poll worker trainings particularly for students, and even making all polling locations accessible for individuals with disabilities.
“The EAC is the only federal agency solely focused on election administration and our mission has grown in the years since HAVA’s passage to serve a critical role in supporting election officials across the country,” EAC Chairman Thomas Hicks said in a statement to CNN. “The EAC is a critical part of ensuring free, fair, secure, and accessible elections across the United States.”
HAVA sought to restore confidence in the country’s voting system, Hoyer said, but the dynamics have shifted – a growing number of Americans are unwilling to accept results they don’t agree with.
“It’s not so much the technology that is in question now,” Hoyer told CNN. “That was the case in 2000. Now, it’s a question of whether or not people are willing to accept results that courts over and over and over again have said were legitimate results.”
Another key difference between now and then, Hoyer said, was that both parties could find common ground in the early 2000s when it came to election related funding.
“They were not hostile to that in 2002,” Hoyer said of Republicans back then, who had the majority in the House when HAVA was enacted. “We got an overwhelming majority of Democrats and Republicans voting for the creation of HAVA, the funding to the states, and the provisions that we provided for advisory capacity by the Election Assistance Commission. That bipartisan commitment no longer exists sadly.”
In the fallout of the 2020 presidential election, Trump and his allies repeatedly called into question the validity of voting systems, making false claims about foreign interference and voting machine irregularities. Courts across the country have invalidated Trump’s claims about voting machine issues. One company, Dominion Voting Systems, has sued Trump’s campaign and conservative media allies for defamation.
A wave of election denying candidates made in Trump’s mold have emerged on the scene since Trump lost, creating a new concern that those who could potentially oversee elections might not accept future results they don’t agree with.
Threats to nonpartisan poll workers and fears about safety at polling locations have also increased. Heading into the 2022 midterms, states across the country have worked to further secure their polling locations and poll workers in anticipation of disruptions.
“It is a sad day in America when there are threats to election officials, threats to voters and the creation of an atmosphere around voting which is perceived to be unsafe,” Hoyer said. “Those are despotic countries that present their citizens with such an environment, and hopefully, Republicans, Democrats, independents will all reject that kind of violence. But unfortunately, we’ve seen that’s not always the case.”
Hoyer believes if more funding had gone to HAVA over the years, the American people would have had more confidence in the country’s voting systems and it would have been more difficult for election lies related to voting systems to catch on.
“Frankly had we funded HAVA in an effective way over the years, I think we would be much more likely to have a public that would conclude, ‘Look, the machine we used was honest, it was transparent, it works well, and it does reflect our vote,’” the majority leader said.
HAVA initially provided around $3.5 billion in funding, but the commitment to fully refund the programs enacted by the legislation has dwindled.
In 2011, when Republicans reclaimed the House, broad funding for HAVA languished. Over the years, Republicans have sought to abolish the EAC.
Most 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 concern about Russian interference in elections. A second $400 million was appropriated 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 seeking $5 billion in the Biden administration’s next budget, part of a larger request for 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 Director of Communications Maria Benson said in a statement to CNN, “NASS is proud of the work accomplished by our Chief Election Official members to invest in their elections systems and processes.” Benson asked Congress to reference the organization’s resolution on stable federal funding for election security and requested lawmakers seek input directly from secretaries of state when approaching how to fund HAVA in the future.
Hicks told CNN, “Election officials have historically done more with less and the EAC has distributed and administered $880 million in Congressionally allocated HAVA election security grants over the last 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 its government funding bill ahead of a mid-December deadline, which could include more funding for HAVA. Hoyer said he hopes Republicans come to the table and the funding gets approved, but he acknowledged the roadblocks Republicans have put up when it comes to HAVA funding.
“The way we resolve our disputes is through elections,” Hoyer said. “And if those elections don’t have merit, then as we saw in the insurrection, some people can be incited to try to establish a result by violence, not by voting. And that’s very dangerous for our democracy, and for the stability of our country. That’s a great fear that I have.”