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Why Congress should provide sustained funding in elections

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What the United States achieved last year was nothing short of a miracle. Thanks to the hard work of tens of thousands of public officials across the country, we held an election that was described as the most secure in our history in the midst of a pandemic. In addition to the heroic efforts of our election workers, private donors and businesses filled gaps as Congress deadlocked on a bill that would have given more emergency funding for states and localities to administer elections. These contributions averted the national meltdown, but this is no way to run a democracy.

While community leaders have important roles to play in fostering civic engagement, funding elections should not be the sole responsibility of nonprofits, businesses, or wealthy individuals. They are not bound by an oath to support and defend the Constitution. But members of Congress take such an oath and it should be their responsibility to ensure that our elections are safe and have sufficient funding. The challenges with 2020 were predictable as the need for robust federal assistance was clear for items like masks, recruitment with polling place workers, and additional machines to process the record numbers of absentee ballots.

Issue One talked with federal lawmakers from both parties in Congress to seek to convince them to provide states and localities with the resources they needed. We commended the Cares Act, which invested $400 million to address election concerns as a critical first step. But this initial funding was nowhere near the amount that states and localities needed, so it was concerning that Congress failed to provide additional resources, despite the repeated pleas from election officials across the country.

Into the breach came private donors and firms. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife donated $400 million to the Center for Technology and Civic Life, a nonprofit that then distributed money to over 2,500 jurisdictions. Former movie star and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also donated funding to at least 20 election offices. Sports teams repurposed stadiums as polling places with social distancing. Companies donated face masks, hand sanitizer, and ballot drop boxes to hundreds of districts.

Chester County with Pennsylvania received more than $2 million from the Center for Technology and Civic Life. Such infusion of private funding had exceeded that entire 2020 election budget. Bill Turner, the acting director for voter services, used this funding to hire employees, buy machines and add more drop boxes. Close to 400,000 residents of Chester County cast ballots last fall. The grant allowed Turner and his team to count 150,000 of those ballots in less than two day. Turner estimated that without the extra funding, the count would have taken a full week or even longer.

So Congress must listen to officials in states and localities. The Election Assistance Commission should have sufficient funding and must work in concert with officials to identify how much federal assistance is needed. This approach worked before. In 2019, municipalities asked for aid from the federal government to make elections more secure with purchasing voting machines, bolstering cybersecurity, and tackling audits.

In 2020, private donors played a critical role to ensure this country could run an election. But when the next election comes around, we should not have to depend on them once more. Each of our lawmakers must uphold the oath to the Constitution and support a democracy that promises free and fair elections, and they have to understand the idea that free and fair elections depend on both preparation and sufficient funding.

Congress shirked its duty to ensure safe and secure elections last fall. This cannot happen again. Taking action for these issues should be among the first priorities tackled with the new session. Federal investment in our next election cannot wait until another crisis. This has to start now.

Meredith McGehee is executive director of Issue One based in Washington.

Tags Congress Democracy Election Finance Government Politics President Voting

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