State and local officials beg Congress to send more election funds ahead of November

Top state and local election officials on Wednesday begged Congress to appropriate more election funding ahead of November to address COVID-19 challenges. 

Congress sent $400 million to states to address COVID-19 election concerns as part of the stimulus package signed into law by President Trump in March, called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Election officials testified during an Election Assistance Commission (EAC) summit on Wednesday that those funds were running out.

“It’s looking like I spent close to 60 percent of my CARES Act funding on the primary election,” Jared Dearing, the executive director of the Kentucky State Board of Elections, testified. “To put that in context, we are expecting turnout to go from 30 percent, which was a record high for a primary election, to as much as 70 percent.”

Dearing noted that only around 2 percent of ballots in Kentucky are typically cast through mail-in voting, but that number increased to 75 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic, a change he said would require further funds to address.

“Where we procure these funds and how much this is going to cost is incredibly concerning,” Dearing said.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (R) also testified in favor of the federal government sending more funds, but argued the funds should be sent with fewer strings attached.

“Clearly we welcome more resources, the goal here is we want more stable and consistent funding, because we have COVID, we may be facing COVID in the next elections,” Pate said. 

Georgia and Wisconsin were among the states to face challenges during their primaries earlier this year. Many Wisconsin residents were forced to vote in-person after a last-minute Supreme Court decision meant absentee ballots received after Election Day would not be counted, while voters in certain precincts in Georgia faced hours-long lines due to malfunctioning machines, fewer voting locations, and confusion over mail-in voting.

Lynn Bailey, the executive director of the Board of Elections in Richmond County, Ga. testified that the costs associated with holding the primary increased by over 60 percent due to the need to purchase security equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE) for poll workers. She also noted that her county paid poll workers hazard pay, increasing expenses. 

“Moving forward to November, we had about a 35 percent turnout in our jurisdiction for the past election, we know that in November that number will likely double,” Bailey said. “We can only expect therefore that our budget will double over what we spent this time, if not more.”

Barbara Goeckner, the deputy clerk for Cambridge, Wis., testified that officials had used between 60-70 percent of the CARES Act funding the city had received.

“I would anticipate that we will use nearly another 40 percent going forward into August, and we will need further funding going into November,” Goeckner said.

Sherry Poland, the director of elections in Hamilton County, Ohio, testified that officials had drawn from a fund typically used for purchasing new voting equipment in order to cover the costs of the primary. Even with $700,000 remaining in CARES Act funds, Poland said more would be needed to carry out the election in November.

“You have to secure the resources for the worst-case scenario, so definitely we need the federal funding to continue,” Poland said. 

The challenges to elections during the coronavirus pandemic has been a major issue on Capitol Hill over the past few months. 

Democrats, voting rights rights groups, and advocacy organizations have pushed hard for funding and legislation to expand mail-in and early voting during the pandemic, but many Republicans have expressed concerns about potential legislation federalizing elections and mail-in voting leading to greater voter fraud. 

New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice estimated that states would need $3.6 billion more on top of the $400 million already sent out to address new challenges to elections posed by the pandemic. The House-passed HEROES Act, a coronavirus stimulus package, included this amount for elections, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has opposed the overall bill, describing it as a “liberal wish list.”

More than 550 health and political science experts across the nation signed on to an open letter released Wednesday pointing to the Brennan Center’s estimate in asking Congress to send states more election funding. 

“In order to advance progress, Congress must provide at least an additional $3.6 billion in 2020 to help states adapt their voting systems for the current pandemic environment to ensure that we are able to safely and securely conduct our elections,” the group wrote. 

Sean Eldridge, founder and president of advocacy group Stand Up America, told The Hill the Republican-controlled Senate “should heed the dire warnings of these election officials and immediately return from recess to protect our democracy before it’s too late.”

McConnell detailed this week priorities he hopes to include in the next Senate coronavirus stimulus package, but has not yet indicated where he stands on providing further election funds. 

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the chairman of the elections-focused Senate Rules Committee, blocked passage of a bill last month that would expand mail-in voting, but noted that he would support sending more funding to states.

Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), the ranking member of the elections-focused House Administration Committee, told The Hill Wednesday that he “could be supportive of additional funding for states if it’s needed” but that Democrats on his committee had not fully examined how CARES Act funds were spent. 

Davis noted that any legislation that “federalizes our elections by mandating vote by mail” would be a “non-starter” given time constraints on implementing the process. 

House Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that the “discordant approach to administering elections” underlined the need for federal action.

“Clear federal standards are necessary so voters know how, when, and where to vote with the confidence their ballot will be counted as cast,” Lofgren said in a statement. “Equally important, Congress must expeditiously provide state and local election officials with sufficient funding to respond to the many challenges they face in administering elections during a viral pandemic.”

Tags Donald Trump Mitch McConnell Rodney Davis Roy Blunt Zoe Lofgren

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