Money dries up for Novem­ber

Of­fi­cials say they lack re­sources to con­duct vote

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Pat Beall, Catha­rina Felke and Elizabeth Mul­vey

Head­ing into Ge­or­gia’s pri­mary June 9, McDuffie County Elec­tions Di­rec­tor Phyl­lis Brooks had to as­sem­ble a last-minute crew to count votes.

Two of her three staffers were out with COVID-19. She had more than 2,500 ab­sen­tee bal­lots to tally by hand

Brooks brought in a hand­ful of county em­ploy­ees and hired teenagers to do the count­ing. There’s no money left in her elec­tion office bud­get. Not for poll work­ers. Not for ex­tra hands to count what is likely to be a record num­ber

of mail-in bal­lots. Not even for stamps to send out the ab­sen­tee bal­lots they ex­pect to need.

Six­teen weeks be­fore the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Brooks and hun­dreds of other cash-strapped elec­tions su­per­vi­sors across the na­tion are wait­ing to see how much state and fed­eral money will come their way.

Ex­perts said the coro­n­avirus pan­demic tacked on hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in un­ex­pected costs to this year’s elec­tion, and there are clear signs that an emer­gency fed­eral in­fu­sion of $400 mil­lion made in March will fall far short of what’s needed.

Money buys the ma­te­rial to pull off a free and fair elec­tion, said Nathaniel Persily, an elec­tion law pro­fes­sor with Stan­ford Law School. This year, “lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions are lit­er­ally re­ly­ing on phi­lan­thropy to help pull off this elec­tion,” he said, point­ing to a Chicago non­profit group that do­nated $6.3 mil­lion to five Wis­con­sin cities. “It’s like we are hold­ing a bake sale for our democ­racy.”

Dozens of in­ter­views with elec­tion clerks, state of­fi­cials and ad­vo­cates by USA TODAY Net­work, Columbia Jour­nal­ism In­ves­ti­ga­tions and the PBS se­ries “Front­line” re­veal the coun­try’s patch­work elec­tion sys­tem is fray­ing. A proposal to pro­vide states an ad­di­tional $3.6 bil­lion in fed­eral money to sup­port cra­ter­ing elec­tion bud­gets has yet to be voted on by the U.S. Se­nate.

Aca­demics and ex­perts said the $400 mil­lion al­lo­cated is too lit­tle and its dis­tri­bu­tion too slow. In swing states, cash and re­sources are only now trick­ling down to the lo­cals re­spon­si­ble for run­ning elec­tions.

As a re­sult, ex­pen­sive equip­ment that could speed tab­u­lat­ing votes, open ab­sen­tee en­velopes or check voter sig­na­tures re­main out of reach for many.

The mail­ing costs to deal with in­creased ab­sen­tee vot­ing are likely to add up to tens of mil­lions of dol­lars, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures com­piled by the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice, a New York think tank.

An ad­di­tional $140 mil­lion would be re­quired to re­place poll work­ers who dropped out cit­ing COVID-19 risks and pay raises to keep work­ers who didn’t. Then there will be staffing to count the ex­tra bal­lots, ex­tra train­ing to re­place poll work­ers who fall ill and gal­lons of hand san­i­tizer for polling sta­tions.

Elec­tion of­fi­cials are too often “at the bot­tom of the food chain when it comes to re­sources,” said for­mer Michi­gan di­rec­tor of elec­tions Christo­pher Thomas, a fel­low with the Bi­par­ti­san Pol­icy Cen­ter, a Wash­ing­ton think tank.

Ex­pect­ing mas­sive turnout in Novem­ber, they will need ev­ery dollar. “Even in the best of times, the sys­tem would strug­gle to process this many votes on Elec­tion Day,” he said. “Can they get it done? That’s the big ques­tion.”

Not ev­ery state will need to off­set the threat of COVID-19 with large-scale, mul­ti­mil­lion-dollar pur­chases, but all face un­ex­pected, bud­get-sap­ping costs.

Pauld­ing County, Ge­or­gia ex­pects to re­ceive $8,000 from the state, but that will not even cover the al­most $10,000 the su­per­vi­sor of elec­tions shelled out for mail-in bal­lot drop boxes. In Greene County, Mis­souri, the bill for sneeze guards topped $46,000. Ly­coming County, Penn­syl­va­nia, bought an $11,000, 245-pound high-speed let­ter opener to han­dle mail-in bal­lots.

Lansing, Michi­gan, City Clerk Chris Swope warns vot­ers that no one should ex­pect to know who won three City Coun­cil seats – or any other race – on elec­tion night.

Short of a land­slide, it’s pos­si­ble no

one will know who won the White House on Nov. 4. If it is very close, the count could go to Thanks­giv­ing – or longer, pre­dicted Greg Miller, co-founder and chief op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer of the OSET In­sti­tute, a re­search firm de­vel­op­ing open source tech­nol­ogy for vot­ing sys­tems.

Should the elec­tion sys­tem fal­ter, even in a few states, the fall­out could make the 2000 Gore-Bush elec­tion chaos “look like a spring ball,” Miller said.

Bot­tle­necked

Split among 50 states, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and five U.S. ter­ri­to­ries, the $400 mil­lion from the fed­eral Coro­n­avirus Aid, Re­lief and Eco­nomic Se­cu­rity Act missed the mark by more than $3 bil­lion, the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice wrote in a re­port in April.

“The fund­ing is not suf­fi­cient for what is needed in this new world,” said Dianna Moor­man, di­rec­tor of elec­tions for James City County, Vir­ginia, at a hear­ing by the U.S. Elec­tion As­sis­tance Com­mis­sion.

Three bat­tle­ground states – Ge­or­gia, Penn­syl­va­nia, and Michi­gan – would need more than a quar­ter of a bil­lion dol­lars to meet safety and se­cu­rity goals out­lined in a re­port pub­lished by a bi­par­ti­san group of aca­demics and pol­icy ad­vo­cates. That in­cludes mil­lions for un­bud­geted COVID-19-re­lated costs, such as rent­ing polling places large enough to ac­com­mo­date so­cial dis­tanc­ing and beef­ing up cy­ber­se­cu­rity for elec­tion of­fi­cials work­ing from home.

The sooner elec­tion direc­tors get the money, the sooner they can pre­pare for Novem­ber’s turnout, said Liz Howard, coun­sel for the Bren­nan Cen­ter’s Democ­racy Pro­gram.

The Elec­tion As­sis­tance Com­mis­sion ex­pe­dited re­lease of the $400 mil­lion and pre­dicted it would be dis­trib­uted by April 10. How­ever, 30 states did not even ask for the money un­til af­ter that date. Florida, Ne­vada, Vir­ginia and Ok­la­homa waited un­til May to make their re­quests. Ok­la­homa asked for half its share. Utah asked for less than half, say­ing it had a strong vote-by-mail struc­ture in place.

Mul­ti­ple states did not be­gin al­lo­cat­ing the money to county and lo­cal elec­tion of­fices un­til June, roughly four months be­fore the elec­tion.

That’s cut­ting it close, said For­rest Lehman, elec­tions di­rec­tor for Ly­coming County, Penn­syl­va­nia. “Six months out, that’s when you can turn the ship, that’s when you can make changes.”

Dif­fer­ent states have taken dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to us­ing the money, and some have been more time-con­sum­ing than oth­ers. In Alabama, checks were cut to coun­ties af­ter a group of of­fi­cials,

not just the elec­tions office, agreed upon what was needed.

Florida Sec­re­tary of State Lau­rel Lee did not ask for $20.2 mil­lion in fund­ing un­til mid-May, shortly af­ter the state’s as­so­ci­a­tion of county elec­tions su­per­vi­sors wrote in a let­ter that “Florida is lag­ging be­hind nearly ev­ery other state in se­cur­ing (fed­eral) fund­ing for elec­tions.” The Florida Su­per­vi­sors of Elec­tions wrote, “While we wait, the goods and services we need are be­com­ing scarce.”

Only four states con­ducted all-mail elec­tions be­fore 2020, and it took them years to hone the sys­tems, equip­ment and train­ing to do it. Novem­ber marks the first time any Michi­gan voter can cast a mail-in bal­lot in a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, a her­culean shift. But the Michi­gan sec­re­tary of state’s office had spent only about 30% of its $11.2 mil­lion in fed­eral money by mid-June, on ab­sen­tee bal­lot ap­pli­ca­tions. It was month’s end be­fore state of­fi­cials ten­ta­tively de­cided how to spend the rest.

“More fund­ing is cru­cial, the fund­ing and sup­port we need, it’s out there, it’s been talked about; we just don’t have it yet,” said Cyn­thia Bower, city clerk for Tay­lor, Michi­gan.

In Ari­zona, the gov­er­nor did not re­lease the money to the sec­re­tary of state un­til July 2. By then, the Repub­li­can-led Leg­is­la­ture had pulled $500,000 from the over­all state elec­tion bud­get.

Congress built in its own de­lays. States must match 20% of the fed­eral money within two years or risk pay­ing back the en­tire amount. Cal­i­for­nia’s $36.4 mil­lion award calls for it to spend $7.2 mil­lion of its own money. Mississipp­i’s $4.7 mil­lion re­quires a $945,608 match.

Some state leg­is­la­tures had ad­journed when the coro­n­avirus aid bill passed and could not ap­pro­pri­ate the money. The same spi­ral­ing econ­omy that prompted Congress to pass the act made it harder for states to com­mit to the deal.

Maine’s match trans­lates to roughly $659,000 as tax rev­enue-pro­duc­ing in­dus­tries are shut­tered, ac­cord­ing to Sec­re­tary of State Matthew Dun­lap. “The next fis­cal year is go­ing to be pretty scary,” he said.

The re­quired match is why Ok­la­homa asked for half of the $5.4 mil­lion it was en­ti­tled to. “We didn’t have it,” said Pam Slater, as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of the State Elec­tion Board.

“Would we have loved to be able to ask for the whole thing?” she said. “Sure, but we were lucky to be able to ask for a por­tion of it.”

Un­met needs

High-speed scan­ners quickly and ac­cu­rately count large num­bers of ab­sen­tee or mail-in bal­lots. Ag­ing ma­chines are more likely to fail or be vul­ner­a­ble to hack­ing. More than 1,200 ju­ris­dic­tions – in­clud­ing coun­ties in Texas, Ken­tucky and Illi­nois – plan to count ab­sen­tee bal­lots us­ing scan­ners so old they are no longer man­u­fac­tured.

Louisiana, which has some of the old­est elec­tion equip­ment in the coun­try, ar­ranged months ago to lease new sys­tems. Michi­gan ear­marked $1.5 mil­lion of its fed­eral cash to help elec­tion of­fices buy bal­lot scan­ners and vote tab­u­la­tors.

It is not clear how many elec­tions of­fi­cials can re­place ag­ing equip­ment.

Hills­bor­ough County, Florida, Su­per­vi­sor of Elec­tions Craig La­timer said that when he asked Elec­tions Sys­tems & Soft­ware, the na­tion’s largest ven­dor of its kind, to lease a backup high-speed scan­ner, the an­swer was no.

An ES&S spokes­woman did not di­rectly re­spond when asked if de­mand had out­stripped its sup­ply of scan­ners but said in an email that the com­pany was work­ing with cus­tomers to as­sess needs. In some cases, she said, of­fi­cials are “re­con­fig­ur­ing” equip­ment to han­dle the ex­pected surge of mail-in bal­lots.

“The train has left the station for ma­jor changes,” said Tammy Patrick, se­nior ad­viser for elec­tions for the Democ­racy Fund, a non­par­ti­san Wash­ing­ton foun­da­tion. New com­puter equip­ment, new poll books and test­ing a new vot­ing sys­tem take months, she said.

On­line sys­tems can al­low vot­ers to up­date in­for­ma­tion or reg­is­ter for the first time with­out risk­ing in-per­son vis­its to govern­ment of­fices. But it is too late to cre­ate on­line reg­is­tra­tion sys­tems, Patrick and Thomas said.

In Maine, which re­quires in-per­son reg­is­tra­tion, “peo­ple were say­ing that we needed to de­velop an on­line voter reg­is­tra­tion sys­tem,” said Dun­lap, the sec­re­tary of state. “But we were lack­ing time, we were lack­ing money and we were lack­ing the peo­ple needed to build it.”

A $3 tril­lion bill set­ting aside $3.6 bil­lion in elec­tion fund­ing is stalled in the Se­nate, where Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell, R-Ky., dis­missed it as an “ide­o­log­i­cal wish list.”

Even if the money were avail­able, some states might not ac­cept it. The bill would over­ride states’ voter ID laws in fed­eral elec­tions and broaden ac­cess to mail-in vot­ing.

Both are line-in-the-sand is­sues at the heart of par­ti­san court bat­tles and cam­paign strate­gies by Democrats and Repub­li­cans.

“Re­ceiv­ing one-time funds at the ex­pense of rad­i­cally chang­ing our elec­tion sys­tem is a trade-off we are not will­ing to make,” Louisiana Sec­re­tary of State Kyle Ar­doin said in June be­fore a con­gres­sional sub­com­mit­tee on elec­tions.

Alabama Sec­re­tary of State John Merrill, who chairs the na­tional Repub­li­can Sec­re­taries of State Com­mit­tee, said ac­cept­ing money from the bill as writ­ten would put the fed­eral govern­ment in the driver’s seat. “We do not want them to tell us how to use those re­sources,” he said.

At the lo­cal level, this is not a po­lit­i­cal is­sue, said Jeff Green­burg, elec­tion di­rec­tor in Mercer County, Penn­syl­va­nia. It is a cri­sis.

“As a lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cial, I would love to see Congress and other lev­els stay away from us­ing fund­ing to change elec­tion laws,” Green­burg said. “They al­ways try to tie in both is­sues, and that ends up stop­ping it in its tracks.

“This is an emer­gency. Let’s get the fund­ing out there.”

This story was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with Columbia Jour­nal­ism In­ves­ti­ga­tions, an in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing unit at the Columbia Jour­nal­ism School, and the PBS se­ries “Front­line.”

MICKEY WELSH/USA TODAY NET­WORK

Poll work­ers wear pro­tec­tive gear as vot­ers ar­rive at the Dal­raida Church of Christ precinct in Mont­gomery, Ala., on Tues­day.

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