Bipartisan support grows for inclusion of election funding in Senate stimulus package
Bipartisan federal, state, and local officials on Wednesday threw support behind Congress sending states more funds to address election challenges, such as increased mail-in voting, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During a Senate Rules Committee hearing on 2020 election preparations, committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a key player in securing the funds, said he was open to looking into giving states more election funding with low levels of required state matches.
“I think we ought to go back and look at the money you currently have available to you, and maybe make that money more consistent in terms and times it has to be spent and give you more access to the money you’ve already got in addition to trying to identify the right amount of new money,” Blunt said while addressing state officials at the hearing.
Pressure on the Senate to approve further election funding has increased in the wake of the primary elections, during which many local and state officials ran through much of their portions of the $400 million in election funds included in the CARES Act stimulus package signed into law by President Trump in March.
These funds came with a requirement that states provide a 20 percent match, which has become a stumbling block in states reeling from a drop in revenue due to the pandemic.
A further $3.6 billion for elections was included in the House-passed HEROES Act stimulus package passed in May, the amount experts have pointed to as necessary to ensure states can hold safe and secure elections during the pandemic.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has described the overall bill as a “liberal wishlist,” and said Tuesday that he plans to roll out a GOP stimulus package this week. He has not yet indicated where he stands on election funds, but backed the previous $400 million.
Senate Democrats, voting rights advocates, and current and former officials from both sides of the aisle have pushed hard for funding and federal legislation to expand mail-in and early voting during the COVID-19 crisis.
Sen. Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said during the hearing Wednesday that giving states more funding was essential, emphasizing that the previous $400 million was “not enough.”
“I would rather be putting ballots in a mailbox than people in the hospital,” Klobuchar said. “That’s a choice we have for so many voters and that’s why you see overwhelming support for getting funding, and something I believe we can get done on a bipartisan basis.”
Rick Stream, the Republican Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Mo., testified to the Rules Committee that his office had accrued “unprecedented costs” in the effort to put on elections in the changed landscape.
“While our expenses are going up and are unpredictable for the remainder of the year based on the trajectory of the pandemic, income and sales tax resources coming into the state and county have plummeted,” Stream said. “Additional federal help might be necessary to meet these demands.”
Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett (R) said that his state was well-situated in terms of federal funding. However, with the state of Tennessee currently appealing a state order that gives all registered voters the option to vote absentee, Hargett said this situation could change.
“Without additional mandates from the federal government or through the courts, we feel good about where we are financially,” Hargett said. “However, if a court decision were to require us to do absentee no-excuse or universal vote-by-mail, that would be a game changer for us.”
Both Hargett and West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner (R) argued in favor of Congress not including any “strings,” including large state matches, if it did set aside election funds in an upcoming appropriations package.
“I like the idea of not having a match requirement by Congress, we can handle that at the state level,” Warner testified, noting that his state still had around $2.1 million left in federal election funds from the first March stimulus package that would go towards the November election.
But other states and localities are not in solid financial positions.
“I was troubled to find out that the full amount that New Mexico received from the CARES Act for this year’s primary and general elections, $4 million, had to be spent solely on the primary, and New Mexico is currently anticipating a $6 million shortfall for necessary expenditures for the upcoming general election,” committee member Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said Wednesday.
“Voters should not be forced to choose between their constitutional right to vote and their health and safety,” he added.
Last month, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) hosted a virtual summit, during which state and local officials begged Congress to send further election funds ahead of November.
“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, said during the summit. “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.”
Ahead of the Senate Rules Committee, over 1,000 election officials, voting rights groups, public health experts and other leaders sent letters to the panel supporting more federal election funds. EAC Chairman Benjamin Hovland, who was nominated by President Trump, was among them.
“While state and local officials are primarily responsible for conducting and funding elections, no one could have prepared for the expenses associated with conducting elections during this pandemic,” Hovland wrote in a letter to Blunt and Klobuchar. “The EAC is committed to assisting election officials in any way we can during the remaining months before the November election and stand ready to quickly distribute any additional funding Congress may provide.”