Coronavirus response includes $400 million in election assistance. Will it be enough?

Costs include printing and postage for millions of mail-in ballots

Some states are already pushing voters to cast mail-in ballots and avoid voting in person. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Some states are already pushing voters to cast mail-in ballots and avoid voting in person. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 25, 2020 at 10:11am

A sweeping federal spending package responding to the new coronavirus pandemic will include millions to help states administer elections, but some fear it will not be enough to prevent chaos in November.

The enormous spending bill that Senate leaders of both parties said early Wednesday morning they had agreed on includes $400 million in election assistance, according to a summary and partial bill text released by the Senate Appropriations Committee. That figure is a fraction, however, of the $2 billion the Brennan Center for Justice estimated is necessary for states to prepare for a surge of voters casting ballots by mail and to ensure safe in-person voting.

Ben Hovland, the chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said on Tuesday before a deal on the package was announced that it is difficult to determine how much federal assistance is necessary to prepare states for November.

“From what I’ve been hearing from state and local election officials around the country, I think the number is closer to $2 billion,” he added.

Election officials are already scrambling to adjust to the pandemic, postponing primaries and stressing absentee voting options so voters can avoid polling places. To curb the spread of the virus, public health officials have recommended that gatherings not exceed 10 people.

House Democrats initially proposed $4 billion in election assistance, while Senate Republicans proposed $140 million. Democrats were also pushing for additional provisions, such as requiring states to allow up to 15 days of early voting and provide no-excuse vote-by-mail options.

Elections are traditionally the domain of states, and Republicans had complained that the provisions in the House Democrats’ bill, which were contained in another election overhaul bill that passed the House last year but has gone nowhere in the Senate, were an attempt to usurp that power.

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The early voting and mail-in voting mandates were not included in the spending package, but the sources cited a summary that said the funds would be used “to increase the ability to vote by mail, expand early voting and online registration, and increase the safety of voting in-person by providing additional voting facilities and more poll-workers.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on a conference call with the Democratic Caucus on Tuesday that Democrats would continue to push for additional voting provisions in future bills expected as part of the pandemic response, a source on the call told CQ Roll Call.

Not enough?

Even without a federal mandate, election officials are still expecting a surge in voters requesting to mail in their ballots in November. Officials are also in need of additional resources, such as cleaning supplies to disinfect polling places. And they are expecting a shortage of poll workers. Those workers tend to be senior citizens, who appear to be more vulnerable to life-threatening illness from the virus.

“What we know now is that [election administrators] are going to be looking at increased vote-by-mail, probably in every jurisdiction in the country,” Hovland said. “And with that increase, and additional steps to make sure that voting in the polling place can also be safe for voters ... there are going to be these additional unanticipated costs.”

Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy program at New York University School of Law, said Tuesday that a few hundred million dollars from Congress would be “woefully inadequate” to cover those costs.

Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs at Common Cause, said Wednesday morning that the $400 million was “a step in the right direction, but states and localities need additional critical funding to prepare for this November’s elections to ensure all voters can have their votes counted and voices heard.”

Much of the Brennan Center’s $2 billion estimate stems from an expansion of voting by mail. That could cost states up to $1.4 billion because they will need additional equipment and supplies to print the ballots, mail them to voters and process returned ballots. Much of that estimated cost, between $400 million and nearly $600 million, stems from postage alone.

There are some early signs that voters are already opting to vote by mail. The Wisconsin Election Commission announced Tuesday that it had so far received a record number of 554,000 absentee ballot applications ahead of its April 7 elections, which include the presidential primary, a state Supreme Court race and local contests. A commission spokesman could not provide a cost estimate for distributing and processing absentee ballots because individual municipalities cover those costs.

On Tuesday, Georgia provided a preview of the price tag facing states trying to encourage voters to mail in their ballots.

Gov. Brian Kemp announced that all of the state’s 6.9 million voters would receive absentee ballot applications in the mail ahead of Georgia’s May 19 primary. That could cost an estimated $10 million, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Multiply that by 50, and that’s just for mailing ballots,” Scherb of Common Cause said in a Tuesday interview. “I think the $2 billion [Brennan Center] estimate is probably on the conservative side.”

Weiser said states simply do not have enough resources to cover the costs to manage an increase in mail-in ballots and secure polling places come November.

“They can’t do it without Congress,” she said.

Running out of time

With just over seven months until Election Day, Hovland said he is concerned that Congress is running out of time to send more funds to states. He noted that congressional staffers have told the Election Assistance Commission there could be additional funds in subsequent spending packages.

The problem is that it could take several months for state officials to bolster their ability to process mail-in ballots because they would need to buy new equipment and train staff.

“The time is now, or it’s certainly within the next few weeks, to be able to have the time to make those purchases, implement that equipment, be familiar with how you can use it,” Hovland said.

Scherb also noted that Congress must act quickly because states have to contend with a struggling global economy.

“It takes states time to procure some of this equipment, especially as the supply chain is disrupted around the world,” he said. “So just to be able to ramp up or to plan for it takes several months at least.”

Weiser said there is still time for states to adjust before Election Day, but there isn’t much time to spare. And she said a failure to provide states with resources could have disastrous results.

If states don’t expand voting by mail, voters who are quarantined or concerned about leaving their homes may not be able to vote. A shortage of poll workers could cause long lines at poling places, increasing the risk of infection. A lack of equipment to track absentee ballots sent by mail could result in lost ballots. And a lack of equipment to quickly count absentee ballots could lead to missed election result deadlines.

“Election officials have said that six months is a tight time frame to reconfigure their election infrastructure, but it’s doable,” Weiser said. “Any less than that — we’re bracing for significant meltdowns and disenfranchisement.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.