Election officials ‘prepare for the worst’ as congressional aid talks stall

Pandemic increases costs by requiring elections be run by mail and in person

Election officials are anticipating unprecedented costs due to the ongoing pandemic.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Election officials are anticipating unprecedented costs due to the ongoing pandemic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 13, 2020 at 9:40am

With the White House and Capitol Hill Democrats seemingly deadlocked on legislation to help the unemployed and businesses reeling from the pandemic, election officials around the country are watching anxiously because there is bipartisan agreement that voting in November is going to be more complicated and expensive.

Election Assistance Commission Chairman Ben Hovland said election costs could be "unprecedented" due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and high turnout for the presidential election. And those costs come as states are seeing tax revenues plummet.

Hovland said every election official he has talked to, regardless of political party, has said additional funding is needed to prepare for a surge in voting by mail and the extra staff and protective equipment needed to make polling places safe. Grants intended to improve election security may be used instead to pay for pandemic-related costs, he said. The need for more funding than the $400 million Congress allocated in March is also frequently discussed during the National Association of Secretaries of State's weekly conference calls.

"I think that election officials also know that they need to plan like they're not going to get [more funding]," Hovland said Tuesday in a phone interview. "You know, the old adage of plan for the worst and hope for the best."

Hovland and other experts and advocates warned that further delay or a failure to provide any additional funds could exacerbate problems that plagued some recent primaries, including long lines at polling places and long waits for results.

Aaron Scherb, legislative director for Common Cause, said Congress needs to act quickly to provide more resources, particularly as state and local governments face budget shortfalls due to the pandemic.

"States essentially have to run two elections this November: one by mail, one in person," Scherb said.

Talks stall

Congressional negotiators were far apart on election funding before negotiations on a broader package stalled this month. House Democrats included $3.6 billion for election assistance in a more than $3.4 trillion package approved in May, while Senate Republicans did not include any funding relating to elections in their proposal last month.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the top Democrat on the Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees elections, said in a statement that she is still working with the committee's chairman, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, to obtain additional funding.

“It is critical to get states the resources they need to safely hold elections, and it’s not too late," Klobuchar said. "Funding now will go toward things like postage, drop boxes, expanding early voting, training younger poll workers, and improving the safety of voting on Election Day."

Blunt has said he supports more funding but not requirements in House Democrats' bill that would dictate how states and counties run elections and mandate changes such as expanding mail-in and early voting. Blunt told reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday that negotiations could become "less partisan" as Election Day nears "because it’s not realistic to expect the states to comply with new federal standards or a federal takeover of elections."

Blunt declined to say how much additional funding would be necessary, but he said Democrats' proposed $3.6 billion was too high, since many primaries have come and gone. Still, he signaled that more funding could be allocated.

"There are more expenses this year, whether it’s in person or by mail," Blunt said. "And we can help with that.”

When Congress allocated $400 million in election funding nearly six months ago, each state and territory applied for funds to cover costs related to expanding absentee voting, obtaining new equipment, paying additional staff and launching outreach campaigns to educate voters.

Nearly $48 million in federal election funds have been spent for primaries and special elections, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of post-primary reports filed with the Election Assistance Commission.

New Mexico has spent nearly all of its $3.9 million in federal funds. Georgia spent more than 60 percent for its primaries in June, where all registered voters were mailed absentee ballot applications but a reduced number of in-person voting sites still drew crowds and long lines. Eleven other states have spent between 20 percent and 50 percent of their federal funds, including Alabama, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.

November looms

Primaries in recent months have foreshadowed high turnout and exponential increases in voting by mail for November. And states are quickly running out of time to prepare. By now, election officials should have started processes to develop absentee ballot applications; to secure contracts for producing envelopes and other materials and for tracking ballots; and to purchase equipment to sort, verify and track ballots, according to a vote-by-mail timeline from the EAC.

Preparations have varied, according to Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, which has been working with state and local election officials to ramp up vote-by-mail processes.

"I wouldn't say that it's happened as quickly as many of us that are experts in the space would like to see," McReynolds said. "But I think some of that has been a lack of funding and the unknown for what they can do."

Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program, said delayed funding means costs may only increase, particularly as the U.S. Postal Service considers raising postage prices. For example, if a state has missed the deadline to acquire equipment such as high-speed ballot scanners, more staff will be needed to count ballots, which could be expensive.

"It's getting increasingly desperate as the clock ticks," Weiser said. "Many options have been foreclosed for how to use the money effectively at this point."

But Weiser and others emphasized that it is not too late for Congress to act as officials scramble to register voters, recruit poll workers, educate voters and purchase personal protective equipment in September and October.

"There's a lot of lessons from the primaries that can be put in place to at least mitigate what seems to be a looming disaster in November," Weiser said. "And those steps still require resources."