GOP sparks backlash after excluding election funds from COVID-19 bill

Senate Republicans left out funding for mail-in and early voting during the COVID-19 pandemic in their stimulus bill rolled out Monday, prompting backlash from Democrats, election officials and advocacy groups. 

With less than 100 days to go before Election Day, these officials are concerned that without a new injection of federal funds, state and local officials facing budget shortfalls may struggle to carry out safe and secure elections that ensure every American can vote. 

The concerns come as the pandemic has upended the primary process, leading most states to postpone their contests, while results in a handful, including New York, have been delayed by a surge in mailed-in ballots.

“This isn’t in anyone’s budget, no one budgeted for a pandemic, and you can see state and local budgets are cratering, they don’t have funding to put into this, and certainly it’s going to be a challenge,” Election Assistance Commission (EAC) Chairman Benjamin Hovland, who was nominated by President Trump, told The Hill Tuesday. 

The roughly $1 trillion stimulus proposal, announced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other top Republicans on Monday, did not include election funds for states, despite months of strong advocacy for the inclusion of these funds. 

McConnell said during a press conference that he was concerned that including the funds would “federalize” elections, adding that Congress had previously appropriated election funds to states in other funding bills. 

“We’ve provided plenty of financial assistance, but we are not going to tell them how to conduct their elections during the pandemic, or in my view, in the future either, so that’s why there is not additional money in there for election assistance,” McConnell told reporters.

Congress appropriated $400 million to states as part of the CARES Act stimulus bill signed into law by President Trump in March. These funds were in addition to over $800 million sent to states to boost election security as part of appropriations packages since 2018. 

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the chairman of the elections-focused Senate Rules Committee, told The Hill Tuesday that he was “open” to additional election funds being sent to states in the future, but also wanted to examine ways “to increase flexibility for states to use the current funding they have available.”

The House included $3.6 billion for elections in the Democratic-backed HEROES Act stimulus bill, which the Senate does not plan to consider after the House passed it along party lines in May.

Blunt told reporters separately Tuesday that while the proposed $3.6 billion was an “indefensible” amount, he could still be “in favor of adding some money” during the eventual stimulus package negotiations between the House and Senate.

“Putting a reasonable amount of money on the table compared to their $3.6 billion was probably not worth rolling out … [Democrats’] response would be that it was not nearly enough,” Blunt said. “We’re not going to get anywhere close to the number in the House bill, so why have another number out there that gets denigrated before you are serious about talking about it?”

The exclusion of the election funds prompted backlash from officials and voting rights groups over concerns that with states facing budget shortfalls due to the pandemic, the federal government needed to step in to ensure free and fair elections could take place this year. 

New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice estimated earlier this year that states would need a total of $4 billion to address new challenges to elections such as training younger poll workers, purchasing sanitizing equipment and preparing for an influx of mail-in ballots. 

Liz Howard, senior counsel at the Brennan Center and former deputy commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, told The Hill that there could be dire consequences if Congress doesn’t send further funds, noting election officials are “desperate” for the assistance.

“Our officials are working around the clock to prepare for a historic turnout this November, but they need additional funding to provide ample polling places that allow for social distancing, and to supply enough personal protective equipment to keep poll workers and voters safe,” Howard said. “Without this funding, we’ll likely see long lines, delayed election results and other problems in November.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee, has been among the key Democrats advocating for legislation to promote mail-in and early voting during the pandemic, and pushing to send election funds to states. 

“This proposal fails to help states safely administer elections during the pandemic by providing resources and expanding options for Americans to vote,” Klobuchar told The Hill in a statement on Tuesday.

Klobuchar emphasized that a plan needed to be put in place to ensure “voters don’t have to choose between their health and their right to vote.”

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman (R) urged senators on Monday to “put aside partisanship” around election funds in order to enable Americans to “safely vote in November.” 

“Our democracy is really hanging in the balance right now,” Wyman said during a press call. “I’m hoping that members of the Republican Party can reach across the aisle to find a solution to ensure states can provide a safe voting experience for those voting at home and at the polls this fall.”

Wyman was joined on the call by representatives of top voting rights advocacy groups and by Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP. Johnson emphasized that funding for mail-in voting was “critical” to ensure every American could vote. 

“We believe in order for us to be proud of the nation that we all call our home country, we must ensure a fair and transparent and safe election,” Johnson said. 

Washington is among the states that had moved to completely mail-in voting prior to the pandemic, along with Colorado, Oregon and Utah. Many other states have moved to no-excuse mail-in voting during the pandemic, an effort that Republicans including President Trump have criticized, citing mostly unsubstantiated concerns over voting fraud. 

With the new voting changes, state and local officials from both sides of the aisle have warned in recent weeks that they will need further federal funding to successfully hold elections in November after primaries ran through much of the previous federal funds. 

Hovland said it was clear to the EAC, which facilitated sending the previous federal funds to states, that election officials were facing “unprecedented” costs this year. 

“What I hear from them is concern about the need for funding, concern about what their elections would look like without it, and frankly the fact that they say to me, they don’t have time for politics, they need to get the job done, and they need the resources to do it,” Hovland said. 

While time is quickly running out for officials to use the funds for the 2020 elections, Hovland said they could still go towards educating Americans on voting changes and to hire new poll workers. 

While Hovland said he “remains hopeful” that Congress will send another round of funds, he warned that if Congress didn’t step in, the voting process could suffer. 

“I think that it’s important that if there is no additional funding that people temper expectations. You absolutely get what you pay for in this scenario,” Hovland said. “If people want results quickly, that is going to take resources, there is no ifs, ands or buts about it.”

Tags 2020 election Amy Klobuchar Coronavirus Donald Trump Election Assistance Commission Elections federal funding Mitch McConnell Roy Blunt

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