Democrats push to cut federal strings on state election grants

Some Republican state election officials support the move

Democrats are trying in the latest coronavirus response bill to remove a requirement that states put up a 20 percent match to share in $400 million in federal election security grants. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrats are trying in the latest coronavirus response bill to remove a requirement that states put up a 20 percent match to share in $400 million in federal election security grants. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 10, 2020 at 4:52pm

Democrats’ push to eliminate a state match requirement for federal grants meant to help election officials deal with coronavirus-related problems is resonating with state officials of both parties and adding another layer of intrigue to the latest COVID-19 aid talks.

Under the $2.3 trillion economic relief measure signed last month, states are required to put up a 20 percent match for their portion of $400 million appropriated for pandemic-related election security grants. That’s consistent with the match requirement for $425 million set aside for similar election grants in last December’s fiscal 2020 appropriations bill.

The funds were intended to support efforts to upgrade election systems and guard against foreign interference. But with state budgets strained to the breaking point as a result of the economy-wide shutdown spawned by COVID-19, critics say it’s time to waive the state match requirement.

Senate and House Democrats’ $500 billion-plus aid package offered on the Senate floor Thursday — rejected by the GOP — proposed changes to the election grant process including scrapping the 20 percent match, allowing state officials to spend the federal grant without action by state legislatures, and loosening state reporting requirements.

While Republicans blocked the Democrats’ broader bill, it serves as a marker for changes that Democrats would like to see as House and Senate leadership and the White House engage in talks on wider ranging emergency legislation.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi each spoke with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Friday about restarting bipartisan talks, made more urgent by the rapidly dwindling small-business lending account created by the most recent aid package.

It’s unclear whether congressional Republicans or the White House are willing to waive the state-match requirement.

A Senate GOP aide said when the $400 million enacted last month for election security was being negotiated, Democrats “never demanded that the match be removed. Everyone knew the match carried forward, and that in-kind expenditures would apply toward it,” the aide said, speaking anonymously in order to speak candidly.

In previous guidance, the commission defined in-kind contributions as something provided by a third party at no charge that the state election agency would normally pay for under the grant. For example, the commission said training provided to election staff by another agency as part of the grant activity would qualify.

State allotments

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency which administers the grants, on April 6 broke down the amount each of the 50 states, District of Columbia and several U.S. territories would receive from the $400 million as well as their required match.

The grants range from $600,000 for small territories such as Guam to $36.3 million for California. To get the funding, each state must send a letter to the commission requesting the money. As of Friday, a dozen states had done so, the commission said.

In a press call with other secretaries of state Thursday, Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican, said the 20 percent match requirement “will make use of these funds much more difficult for our state to meet.” He urged Congress to remove the requirement and provide more funding to states for the election.

“Like states around the nation, we have had our budget decimated and we are in the process of procuring voting equipment, which we expect to cost north of $60 million,” Ardoin said. Louisiana was awarded a $6.2 million grant with a requirement for a $1.2 million match.

“We must try to [re]move that 20 percent match,” said Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat. “It really is problematic for many states in this time of plummeting state revenues.”

Not all state officials are complaining about the match. In the same call, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican, said the 20 percent match is not a problem in the Mountain State.

“I do recognize it’s a problem for some of my colleagues with issues with procurement, timing of the legislature meeting and so forth,” he said. “Let the secretaries of state decide where it’s needed most, and most importantly, get it out in time for us to use it.”

Prepping for November

The $400 million is meant to help states with costs “to prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally” in the 2020 elections.

Allowable costs run the gamut, according to commission guidance, including printing additional absentee ballots, acquiring equipment and software, purchasing cleaning supplies and protective masks, deep cleaning of voting facilities and overtime pay for elections staff and poll workers.

States can only use the federal grants for the pandemic and they have until Dec. 31, 2020 to spend the federal money or return it to the Treasury. States have an additional two years to provide their matching funds. The state match similarly must be spent on pandemic-related activities, which the commission said could include post-election audits or deep cleaning of facilities where ballots will be stored.

Nevertheless, the commission in its guidance encourages states to match the funds before Dec. 31, 2020, since the states might have to repay any federal money they are unable to match within two years.

The commission said it is being as flexible as possible and will work with states to identify matching funds, which could include spending from a state election agency’s regular funds or emergency state funds allocated to the election agency. States also can use in-kind expenditures as matching funds. The commission plans to hold webinar meetings with state officials next week to provide additional details on how in-kind expenditures can be used to match the grant.

That is not good enough for Democrats, who want to ease requirements for states.

“We see the $400 million as a first step,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Thursday, adding that Democrats agree “we need to make a few changes to make sure that money gets out to every single state.”

As ranking Democrat on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, Klobuchar has been pushing for federal aid to states to safeguard their elections following revelations that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election. She said Democrats also “want to have more funding in the future in another package for safe and secure elections.”

Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, has fought for election aid to states during the past several years and favors waiving the match, a spokesman said.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey of New York also supports waiving the match, a spokesman said. House Democrats proposed an emergency spending bill last month that contained $4 billion in election assistance, without any state match required. It also included provisions such as requiring states to allow up to 15 days of early voting and make it easier to vote by mail.

In addition to ending the match requirement, the Senate and House Democrats’ new aid proposal would negate the need for any state legislature to convene in order to obtain the funding. Legislative sessions have been made more difficult due to social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Under the proposal, the chief election official in any state could gain access to a grant without a state legislature having to appropriate or release funds first.

The Democrats’ proposal would also extend the time that states have to file a report with the commission on how they used the grant from 20 days after an election in 2020 to Oct. 30, 2021. The bill also would extend the deadline for a state to obligate the funds from Dec. 31, 2020 to Sept. 30, 2021.