Nationwide changes needed to make election coronavirus-ready could cost $2 billion: study

Nationwide changes needed to make election coronavirus-ready could cost $2 billion: study
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Costs for the federal government to make it safe for voters to participate in the general election could add up to $2 billion, should the coronavirus still be a concern in November, a new study by an independent think tank shows.

The study, which was conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice, outlines several sweeping nationwide changes to the current voting system such as universal mail-in voting, easier online voter registration and more.

According to study, the process of mailing and receiving ballots would cost between $413 million and $593 million alone. For example, costs would be incurred in many states from ballot box construction — a place where voters could go and drop off their mail-in ballots. At least four states — California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — already have drop-off ballot boxes. 

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Another big chunk of the cost — approximately $270 million — would go to maintaining and bolstering in-person polling places.

"Regardless of Covid-19, people without Internet and mail access, those who need language assistance to vote, and people with disabilities who rely on voting machines to cast a private and independent ballot may be disenfranchised if polling places are closed," the think tank said in its report.

Public education regarding the virus and the new changes could cost another $250 million.

"State officials, advocates, and citizens should take steps to reassure citizens that voting will be safe and to guard against the use of Covid-19 to suppress voters or otherwise manipulate the election," the group said.

There are more than 11,000 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and several states have postponed their primary elections until June. Ohio, which was supposed to vote on Tuesday, was one of these states.

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Lawrence Norden, the director of Election Reform at the Brennan Center and one of the report’s authors, told The Hill on Friday that Congress needed to appropriate these funds as soon as possible to ensure the November elections can go forward.

“This would be a massive undertaking but I think it’s absolutely necessary to make sure that we are prepared to run our elections in November, and I think all the problems we have been having in primaries in the last few weeks is evidence we need to start now,” Norden said. 

The Brennan Center’s report was released following the introduction of a bill spearheaded by Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharDemocrats fear coronavirus impact on November turnout Hillicon Valley: Zoom draws new scrutiny amid virus fallout | Dems step up push for mail-in voting | Google to lift ban on political ads referencing coronavirus Democrats press Trump, GOP for funding for mail-in ballots MORE (D-Minn.) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocrats ask EPA, Interior to pause rulemaking amid coronavirus Democrats say more unemployment benefits needed in wake of record unemployment claims Democrats fear coronavirus impact on November turnout MORE (D-Ore.) that would boost the ability of voters to mail-in ballots, along with taking other steps to allow Americans to vote in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Non-profit group Stand Up America also took action to promote mail-in voting earlier this week, launching a campaign across all 50 states to encourage Americans to tell Congress to fund voting by mail. The group drove more than 19,000 calls to congressional offices on the first day. 

Norden said the Senate bill was “a good start,” but said it was “unfortunate” that as of Thursday the bill only had Democratic sponsors, making it more difficult to push through Congress. 

Congress has already approved along bipartisan lines over $800 million since 2018 to assist states in boosting their election security. $425 million of these funds have not yet been appropriated to states, who have until the end of April to submit budgets to the Election Assistance Commission for how they would use these funds. 

Norden told The Hill that he hoped Congress would move forward quickly and give states separate funds to address changes needed to enable voting in November, and not compromise election security. 

“I would hate for a situation where they have to make that choice, the election security threat doesn’t go away because of this pandemic. If anything, we have to start rethinking what the election security threats are,” Norden said. 

Norden emphasized that while it will need swift action from Congress, such as including the new funds in its next coronavirus stimulus package, this was a challenge the U.S. could address.

“We voted through the Spanish Flu pandemic, we voted through the Civil War, and we are capable of doing this, we just have commit to doing it,” Norden said.