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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.