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Ensuring Safe Elections

Summary: Local election jurisdictions will bear the heaviest burden of protecting voters and workers from Covid-19 come November. They need Congress’s help now.

Published: April 30, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has changed voting beha­vior and poses an extraordin­ary chal­lenge to state and local offi­cials as they seek to ensure that elec­tions in 2020 are fair, safe, and secure. As national poli­cy­makers consider how people should vote in light of the pandemic, elec­tions them­selves have already changed. Millions of voters are request­ing mail ballots, far more than would have been the case other­wise. Many fewer are updat­ing their regis­tra­tions at govern­ment offices. Instead, they register online or find other ways to sign up. Govern­ments face the unfore­seen cost of invest­ing in personal protect­ive equip­ment (PPE) and sanit­a­tion supplies to reduce the risk of illness and even death to their work­ers and voters. foot­note1_5phz880 1 There have been several instances of poll work­ers test­ing posit­ive for Covid-19 soon after elec­tions. See e.g., John Keil­man, “After Chicago poll worker dies from COVID-19 and others test posit­ive, city warns voters they might have been exposed to virus at polling places,” Chicago Trib­ute, Apr. 13, https://www.chica­g­o­­po6jf­bxn7e4i6vkj6n2y-story.html; Gary Fineout, “2 Flor­ida primary poll work­ers test posit­ive for coronavirus,” Politico, Mar. 26, 2020,­ida/story/2020/03/26/2-flor­ida-primary-poll-work­ers-test-posit­ive-for-coronavirus-1269261. Even if no rules change, the 2020 elec­tion will be costly.

Congress has already provided some help. On March 27, Pres­id­ent Trump signed into law a $2 tril­lion economic relief pack­age that included $400 million in grants to help states run their elec­tions during the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic. This was an import­ant first step. Unfor­tu­nately, we now know this is not enough. foot­note2_r6on­wo6 2 Moreover, some states are concerned that they will not be able to access the federal funds because of constraints put on the money. National Asso­ci­ation of Secret­ar­ies of State, “NASS Pres­id­ent Paul Pate & Pres­id­ent-elect Maggie Toulouse Oliver Open Letter to Congress and Amer­ican Voters on COVID-19 Elec­tion Prepar­a­tions,” Mar. 25, 2020,

In this docu­ment we exam­ine the differ­ence between the March 27 federal invest­ment in the elect­oral process and what will be needed to ensure safe and healthy elec­tions for 2020. We focus on Geor­gia, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. These five states have diver­ging elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion systems and needs, from the number of elec­tions each will hold this cycle to their require­ments for absentee voting. Two common themes stand out.

First, what Congress has provided so far is not enough to run safe and secure elec­tions in 2020. Our review shows that the March 27 grants will likely cover anywhere from less than 10 percent of what Geor­gia offi­cials need to around 18 percent of what Ohio offi­cials need.

Second, local elec­tion juris­dic­tions bear the heav­iest burden of protect­ing voters and work­ers during the elec­tion. In two of the states we examined, local govern­ments must cover over 90 percent of the costs needed to ensure safe and secure elec­tions this year. In all five states, they will bear the over­whelm­ing share of such expenses.

The meas­ures that we appraise in this docu­ment are crit­ical. They come from our discus­sions with numer­ous elec­tion offi­cials in each of the five states we examined. States need help:

  • devel­op­ing the infra­struc­ture neces­sary to support changed voter beha­vior (e.g., more voters choos­ing to register online or to vote by mail);
  • protect­ing voters and elec­tion work­ers during elec­tions (e.g., giving poll work­ers PPE, allow­ing curb­side voting, clean­ing polling places, and ensur­ing that elec­tion staff can work off-site as needed without expos­ing elec­tion offices to cyber­at­tacks); and
  • educat­ing the public about changes made to elec­tion proced­ures and polling loca­tions (includ­ing notice of changed elec­tions, moved polling sites, and new voting options to reduce dens­ity at in-person loca­tions).

The accom­pa­ny­ing report repres­ents the consensus of an ideo­lo­gic­ally diverse group of organ­iz­a­tions: the Alli­ance for Secur­ing Demo­cracy, the Bren­nan Center for Justice, Pitt Cyber, and R Street Insti­tute. From inter­views with elec­tion offi­cials and the vendors who must supply most of the products and services these offi­cials need, it is clear that addi­tional appro­pri­ations are neces­sary to fulfill the goal of free, fair, and safe elec­tions in 2020. Without fund­ing from the federal govern­ment, there is little chance that state and local govern­ments can shoulder the finan­cial burden. Indeed, nearly every state and local govern­ment in the coun­try faces severe budget chal­lenges this year. foot­note3_yrj3o2b 3 Stateline Article, “ ‘We Have No Money’: Coronavirus Slams State Taxes,” Pew Char­it­able Trusts, Apr. 2, 2020, (“Few state econom­ists and budget analysts have calcu­lated the fiscal impact of the pandemic so far, and it’s hard at this early stage to say how big the drop off in tax collec­tions will be, said Brian Sigritz, director of state fiscal stud­ies for the National Asso­ci­ation of State Budget Officers, a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based member­ship organ­iz­a­tion. But the early estim­ates don’t look good, he said. ‘It looks like the drop-off that states could be facing this time could be more severe than the Great Reces­sion.’”).

Without congres­sional lead­er­ship, the risk of repeat­ing the prob­lems exper­i­enced in recent primar­ies will increase dramat­ic­ally. These prob­lems include an inab­il­ity to timely process ballot applic­a­tions, closed polling places, and unne­ces­sary sick­ness and even death for voters and elec­tion work­ers perform­ing their civic duties. foot­note4_lg5zbmj 4 See, e.g., Keil­man, “After Chicago poll worker dies from COVID-19 and others test posit­ive, city warns voters they might have been exposed to virus at polling places”; Fineout, “2 Flor­ida primary poll work­ers test posit­ive for coronavirus.” Facing an economic down­turn, states may soon tighten their belts further on many services. The federal govern­ment has the resources to ensure that state and local govern­ments can run free, fair, and safe elec­tions this fall. We urge them to do so as soon as possible.

End Notes