Money dries up for November
Officials say they lack resources to conduct vote
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.
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.”
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.”
Poll workers wear protective gear as voters arrive at the Dalraida Church of Christ precinct in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday.