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Last Chance to Secure the 2020 Elections

Pennsylvania’s chief election officials say that extra federal funding for election security is “absolutely critical” for an effective election in November.

Published: July 27, 2020

With just under 100 days to go before Election Day, state and local election officials are working hard to protect their voting systems from cybersecurity threats and to ensure that every eligible American can vote. And they are undertaking those efforts amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis, which has raised the stakes of a fight for additional election security funding from Congress. 

As a perennial battleground state, Pennsylvania is on the frontlines for election security — which was underscored in 2016 when, along with many other states, its voter registration systems were targeted by Russian operatives. Those attempts were unsuccessful in Pennsylvania thanks to a strong foundation of defenses, and since then, the state has carried out even more significant upgrades to its election infrastructure, such as ensuring that every county has voting machines that produce a verifiable paper trail that election officials can manually audit. Rescheduled from its original date of April 28 due to the pandemic, Pennsylvania’s statewide primary elections were held on June 2 and included an option for mail-in voting for all eligible voters. 

Kathy Boockvar, secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania since 2019, is at the helm of the state’s election preparations. Boockvar, together with Jonathan M. Marks, Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary for elections and commissions, spoke with Brennan Center Staff Writer Tim Lau about election disinformation, the impact of the coronavirus, and the urgent need for additional election security funding from the federal government. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How has the pandemic affected your department’s election security efforts this year?

Kathy Boockvar: Covid-19 has impacted every component part of our elections, including for our primaries. To start with, Pennsylvania passed Act 77 last fall, which allowed voters in our state to vote by mail without an excuse for the first time. Then Covid-19 hit. And the volume of requests for mail ballots was unlike anything we could possibly have anticipated. During the 2016 presidential primary, we received 84,000 absentee ballots for the entire state. For the June 2 primary this year, we received almost 1.5 million votes by mail and absentee. That’s about a 17-fold increase. That has affected every part of the mail voting process — from processing the applications, to getting the ballots in the mail, to counting the votes. 

Covid-19 also led to a shutdown of many county operations. On primary day, some counties were still in what the governor designated as the red phase of the statewide Covid-19 protection plan. In the weeks and months leading up to the primary, there were county office closings and election office shutdowns. Counties had to figure out how to best train poll workers, perform Logic and Accuracy testing, and process voter registration applications and mail-in ballots, all while dealing with shutdowns and skeletal crews.

We also had in-person voting for the June primary, so we had to make sure that polling places were safe. We were able to secure personal protective equipment (PPE), which included masks for poll workers, hand sanitizer, face shields, tape to mark social distancing measures, and sanitizing cleanser for the voting systems. We secured all of that at the state level and distributed it to the counties, as well as some extra masks for voters who might have forgotten one. Counties also worked to ensure that social distancing was maintained for vote counting. 

The November election is just over three months away. What are the major gaps, if any, that remain in your state’s preparations?

Boockvar: What we learned from the primary is that to increase efficiency of the counties’ operations, equipment and staffing should be greatly augmented. So if we receive any additional federal funding, we would likely sub-grant the largest piece directly to the counties to allow them to hire additional staff, buy the equipment they need, and make sure they have the storage space they need, that they have enhanced security, and that they have chain of custody training and support. We should ensure that every county has enough funds so that they don’t decide against purchasing something that they need, or against hiring staffers that they need, and try to hold an election that is not as effective, efficient, and accessible to voters as it should be.

With extra funding, and given the pandemic, I think we should also, if possible, provide for pre-paid postage for ballots. That would help voters avoid, for example, having to wait in line in a public space to get a stamp. I would also love to send applications to every voter. I do think that extra funding is absolutely critical for us to have the most effective election in November.

Jonathan Marks: I would add that there was a ripple effect at the height of the crisis as businesses closed and county governments started shutting down. Tax revenues were slowed or were not coming in. Counties had to make tough choices about furloughing staff. And even in counties that designated their election staff as essential, there were other individuals, county staff, who support those efforts, like county print shops. So the additional funding is critical so that counties can have the appropriate levels of staffing — not only in their election office but in all of the areas that support those efforts.

Pennsylvania has already received two rounds of federal funding this year for election security. There was another federal grant in 2018. How much of those funds have already been spent?

Boockvar: One hundred percent of the 2018 federal funding has been distributed to the counties. That all went to the counties who needed to replace their old voting systems with voter-verifiable paper trail voting systems.

From the two rounds of funding this year — the election security grant and the Cares Act —Pennsylvania received about $29 million in total. We gave approximately $13 million to the counties, distributed proportionally based on voter registration. (These funds for counties are reimbursement based. The $13 million has all been allocated, and some counties have submitted for their share, and the remainder of the counties will receive their allocations once they send us receipts and their requests for reimbursement.)

Of the remaining funds, we have spent about $2.35 million so far on communications. That included between $1 million and $1.5 million on postcards to all primary households to inform them about the change in the primary date and the option for them to vote by mail. And then we spent about $1 million on a public education campaign — which included bilingual TV, radio, and digital platforms — to tell voters both about the change in primary date and the opportunity to vote by mail, and how to do so. 

Additionally, we spent roughly $1.1 million on PPE — masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and so forth. And we’ve allocated several million dollars for various election security improvements in the counties. 

All of the remainder of Pennsylvania’s 2020 Cares Act and election security grant funding is already allocated to help defray specific costs incurred or to be incurred this year due to the pandemic, as well as other critical election security, technology, accessibility, and voter education expenses and projects.

How would you use any additional federal funding to bolster efforts for this year’s elections?

Boockvar: Like I alluded to earlier, I would give the lion’s share of funding to the counties, so they can sufficiently staff up, get equipment, get enough space. Those high-speed, high-capacity scanners, the envelopers, the extractors, the sorters — they all cost huge amounts of money. Like Jonathan said, counties are already spending so much trying to recover from the economic impact of Covid-19. They can’t add to the election budget. So, for the voters, we need to invest at the federal level to make sure that the counties and states have sufficient funds to up all those efforts. And as I mentioned earlier, I would also love to provide prepaid postage for ballots.

Marks: I completely agree. The fact is that the amount of money that has been provided thus far is not going to cover the expenses that counties have had to take on to administer the primary and the upcoming November election.

Earlier, you mentioned a significant investment in communications. What message are you sending to your voters? 

Boockvar: One of our main messages is the availability, security, and safety of mail-in voting. Of course, almost 1.5 million Pennsylvanians have already voted that way in the primary, which is a great place to start. But we expect obviously a much higher turnout in November. We want to make sure that those who may not have voted in the primary all know that they have the option to vote by mail. And we really want to enlist trusted officials and local voices who are well-respected in their communities, including in communities of color and low-income communities, who historically have voted primarily in person, to make sure that they know that this is a very safe, secure, and reliable means of voting. You can still make it a special event with your kids at your kitchen table or curled up in bed with your dog. It’s a great method of expressing your voice. And we want to make sure that everybody knows that.

What advice do you have for your fellow election officials around the country as they prepare for this year’s election?

Marks: My advice is: don’t wait on anything. What we learned very quickly during this year’s primary — and we do tabletop exercises, we talk through various scenarios — is that there’s always something that you don’t think about. For example, who would have expected that, thanks to a pandemic, people would go and buy toilet paper in such large quantities? And that it would have a ripple effect on the paper market, which in turn affected jurisdictions’ abilities to get paper for ballot printing and envelope printing? So, what you had were a lot of jurisdictions with upcoming primaries who were now competing with each other to get those resources.

And the same is true with PPE. Even before the dust had settled on the primary, we were already talking to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency about coordinating efforts to get PPE for the November election. We knew that if we waited, we would have to compete with every other jurisdiction in the country to secure equipment at a time when supply chains are choked.

Boockvar: And this is an ongoing conversation with secretaries of state across the country. We’ve been having weekly calls, and these discussions largely can take place in a much less political environment than what we see in the news. Securing access to the vote is not partisan and must be especially protected in times like these.

We should continue to focus on initiatives like #TrustedInfo2020 that promote trusted election sources because there’s so much misinformation out there that has the potential to cause disruption or to undermine the confidence of our voters. So I’d urge everybody to stay away from the political traps that are thrown at us every day, to focus on trusted information, and to ensure voters have the option to vote by mail when that’s the safest and most secure way to do it for many people during a pandemic. And let’s just make sure that every eligible voter has the opportunity to vote in November.