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What Federal Money Can Still Achieve This Election Season

Congress still has time to give state and local election officials some of the resources they need to run a free, fair, safe, and secure election this November.

Published: September 15, 2020
Poll worker with PPE and voter with mask
Michael B. Thomas/Getty

Nearly four months have passed since the U.S. House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act. The bill would have provided $3.6 billion dollars for state and local election officials to make changes necessary to ensure that all eligible Americans can cast their votes safely and securely during the Covid-19 pandemic this year. The Senate has not yet taken up this bill.

In the months since passage in the House, resourceful election officials around the country have found ways to fund some critical steps that will make it easier to run this fall’s election in the midst of the pandemic. They have increased the capacity of online voter registration systems for the expected surge in use of such systems; adopted online tools for voters to request mail ballots, making it easier to process the flood of such requests; employed ballot tracking tools, allowing voters to ensure their ballot was received and counted; and expanded the use of ballot drop boxes, giving voters more options to return their mail ballots. footnote1_2ao6x0g 1 Wisconsin Elections Commission, April 7, 2020 Absentee Voting Report, May 15, 2020, 11, https://elections.wi.gov/sites/elections.wi.gov/files/2020-05/April%202020%20Absentee%20Voting%20Report.pdf; “Voter Search for Absentee Ballot Request,” New York State Board of Elections, accessed September 11, 2020, https://absenteeballot.elections.ny.gov/; “Where’s My Ballot,” California Secretary of State, accessed September 11, 2020, https://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/ballot-status/wheres-my-ballot/; Gregory S. Schneider, “Virginia General Assembly votes to expand access to absentee voting, create ballot drop boxes,” Washington Post, August 28, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/virgina-voting-ballot-drop-boxes/2020/08/28/2a50f55a-e7cf-11ea-97e0-94d2e46e759b_story.html.

Unfortunately, a lack of federal funding has meant that these steps have been adopted unevenly across the country. Moreover, the closer we get to the election, the smaller the menu of available options for election officials to make purchases or expenditures that mitigate the impact of the expected spike in mail voting and facilitate the execution of safe and healthy elections.

Congress has reconvened from their August recess, and it remains unclear if the two chambers will come together for a Covid-19 relief package that includes additional election funding. What is clear is that if such a relief package is passed before the end of this month, it can still make a difference. Election officials could use federal resources to make critical changes to (1) increase the safety of polling places for workers and voters alike; (2) increase the likelihood that voters who choose to vote by mail can safely cast a ballot on time; (3) ensure ballots will be counted as quickly and accurately as possible after the polls close; and (4) educate voters about new options and processes for voting as a result of Covid-19.

In particular, after speaking with election officials around the country since Labor Day, we found widespread agreement that additional federal funding — even if passed by Congress by early October — would come in time to pay for the following critical items.

Improving Polling Place Voting

Additional PPE for pollworkers and voters

Healthy polling locations require that voters and pollworkers comply with social distancing recommendations and have personal protective equipment (PPE). Lynn Bailey, the executive director of the Board of Elections in Richmond County, Georgia, testified to the Election Assistance Commission that the costs associated with holding the presidential primary increased by over 60 percent due to the need to purchase security equipment and PPE for pollworkers. footnote2_g0mzc1r 2 Maggie Miller, “State and Local Officials Beg Congress to Send More Election Funds ahead of November,” The Hill, July 8, 2020, https://thehill.com/policy/cybersecurity/506464-state-and-local-officials-beg-congress-to-send-more-election-funds-ahead.  PPE, like masks and gloves, is generally not reusable so these additional costs are also recurring.

Some jurisdictions have not offered masks to voters for financial reasons and, in many jurisdictions, potential PPE expenditures are more likely to be cut than other nondiscretionary expenditures like salary, voting machine programming, and/or pollworker pay. In addition to masks and gloves, PPE like face shields and plexiglass barriers are useful as sneezeguards. Additional funding could cover PPE of the type already purchased as well as the full range of protections that can be offered to ensure a safe voting environment.

Alternative polling place locations

Many polling places must move to larger locations to comply with recommended social distancing policies for needed space between voting privacy booths, distance between poll workers, and distance between voters. In addition, polling places are routinely placed in buildings that primarily serve communities at high risk for serious Covid-19 illness, like senior care facilities, and therefore need to move elsewhere for this election.

For these reasons, polling places may need to be sited in alternative locations — with additional charges for rent and/or reconfiguration of space. Separately, with additional funds, more election officials could purchase or rent equipment, such as event tents, to prepare for hosting a polling location in the parking lot or on the lawn of a building that was unexpectedly unable or unwilling to serve as a polling location.

Additional materials and services to sanitize polling places and machines

Polling places need to be sanitized to prevent transmission of the virus in compliance with guidance issued by government health agencies. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance states that pollworkers should clean frequently touched surfaces, disinfect potentially contaminated surfaces after cleaning, and clean and disinfect voting machines and other equipment. footnote3_g6lp463 3 “Considerations for Election Polling Locations and Voters,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last updated June 22, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/election-polling-locations.html.  To effect these processes, polling places need to be equipped with soap, water, and drying materials as well as an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. According to Roxanna Moritz, County Auditor, Scott County, Iowa, professional cleaning services at one polling location could cost up to $2,000, and she would consider using additional federal funds for these services before, and after, the polls open to ensure safe and secure voting. footnote4_u2lespu 4 Roxanna Moritz (Scott County, Iowa County Auditor), interview by Brennan Center for Justice, September 13, 2020.

Additional polling place supplies

Depending on the ballot system, jurisdictions need certain supplies more than usual. With additional funds, more officials in jurisdictions that use optical scan machines could purchase, and offer, single-use marking pens to voters at the polls. Similarly, more jurisdictions that use touch-screen systems could purchase items like Q-tips to allow for many individuals to use a voting machine without repeated touching of the same surface.

Extra pay for pollworkers to reduce the impact of last-minute cancellations and to recruit excess pollworkers to fill in for cancellations

Infectious disease experts expect a surge in Covid-19 cases in the fall, which could begin well before Election Day. Fear of or exposure to the virus may lead some pollworkers to cancel at the last minute. To mitigate this problem, some jurisdictions have raised the rate of pay for pollworkers, which appears to increase interest and applications for the job. footnote5_prl511y 5 Center for Tech and Civic Life, “50 Ideas for Recruiting and Retaining Pollworkers,” August 3, 2020, https://www.techandciviclife.org/recruiting-election-workers/. With additional funding, more jurisdictions could provide extra pay and also hire additional pollworkers to cover absences.

Extra emergency, provisional, and paper ballots

Failsafe voting options — including provisional and emergency ballots — are needed to ensure that system breakdowns do not deny anyone the right to vote. Provisional voting may surge in the upcoming election as a result of voter registration application processing delays (caused by low staffing, high volume, or cyberattack) or because voters have not received their mail ballots before Election Day. If voting machines shut down for any reason, a large supply of emergency ballots will keep the line moving. This redundancy is critically important to prevent voters from leaving without voting and to reduce the possibility of Covid-19 risk. Additional funding can ensure an ample supply of these needed failsafe ballots.

Additionally, although major orders for regular ballots have largely passed, officials across the country continue to increase ballot orders in response to the pandemic, litigation, and legislation. For example, Hinds County, Mississippi, recently increased its paper ballot order from 70 to 80 percent of total registered voters after a court expanded absentee ballot access to include a voter if "he, she or any dependent has consulted with a physician 'who recommends, due to the individual's physical disability or that of their dependent, that he, or she not attend any public gathering because of the possibility of contracting [Covid-19].'" footnote6_pds78nb 6 Toni Johnson (Hinds County, Mississippi Election Commission, District 4, Chair), interview by Brennan Center for Justice, September 8, 2020; “Oppenheim v. Watson Case Details,” The Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, accessed September 14, 2020, https://healthyelections-case-tracker.stanford.edu/detail?id=196.  Mail ballot requests for the upcoming election in Michigan, which recently implemented no-excuse absentee voting and same day registration, are so high that they currently equal 45 percent of all votes cast in the state in 2016. footnote7_w6y92lx 7 “2020 General Election Early Vote Statistics,” U.S. Elections Project, accessed September 11, 2020, https://electproject.github.io/Early-Vote-2020G/index.html. The result: the state likely will need more ballots. With additional funding, many jurisdictions can — and should — order more paper ballots to ensure they have enough regular ballots in the upcoming election. 

Improving Mail Voting

Extra workers to process mail ballot applications

For the upcoming elections, there is significantly increased interest in mail ballots. This means more questions about the process to apply as well as more mail ballot applications, which need to be processed quickly enough to send mail ballots to voters in time for the ballots’ return. For example, St. Louis County voters inundated local officials with questions about absentee voting. In one instance, an employee at the St. Louis County Board of Elections received over 100 voicemails in a single day from voters. footnote8_matc7j1 8 Brennan Center for Justice, Ensuring Safe Elections, 2020, 8, https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/2020_04_5StateCostAnalysis_FINAL.pdf.  This issue can be addressed with temporary staffing or by engaging call center firms. With additional federal funding, election officials could increase the number of temporary staff and decrease the likelihood of a backlog in mail ballot applications, requests for applications, or questions.

Pay for returned ballots

Voters should not bear the return cost of submitting a ballot through the mail. And while some jurisdictions have opted against providing pre-paid return envelopes for mail ballots, these election officials still face some additional, but at this point unknown, postage costs as the U.S. Postal Service delivers all returned ballots marked "official election mail" without sufficient postage and simply bills the local official recipient for the postage. footnote9_4jadlub 9 “So while voters will be asked to pay for postage, they don’t really have to. It’s probably safer to add stamps, but mail carriers are told to deliver ballot envelopes labeled as ‘official election mail…’ The Postal Service still asks voters to attach proper postage. If they don’t, the Postal Service will deliver ballots and later bill county election offices.” Mark Niesse, “Mailed ballots in Georgia will be counted, even without a stamp,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 14, 2020, https://www.ajc.com/news/state--regional-govt--politics/mailed-ballots-georgia-will-counted-even-without-stamp/4P04UcxpZuJ1jZVXgDbixO/; “[A USPS spokeswoman] confirmed that if a ballot is mailed ‘with insufficient or unpaid postage, it is the Postal Service’s policy not to delay the delivery of completed absentee or vote-by-mail ballots.’” “Fact check: U.S. Postal Service will deliver mail ballots even with insufficient postage,” Reuters, last updated August 11, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-factcheck-two-stamps-ballots/fact-check-u-s-postal-service-will-deliver-mail-ballots-even-with-insufficient-postage-idUSKCN2571X3.

More workers to process mail ballots before counting

The increased volume of mail ballots will take longer to count than in-person ballots. The surge in mail ballots therefore may result in a later certification of results than we have seen in recent elections in some states and local jurisdictions. Temporary staff can provide a variety of assistance for processing of mail ballots, from verifying signatures on mail ballot envelopes to assisting with mail ballot processing that occurs prior to counting. With additional federal funding, officials could increase the number of temporary staff available to assist with these critical election administration duties and ensure that mail ballot processing and tabulating can be completed in a timely manner.

More warehouse space for vote counting

Many jurisdictions need different and larger locations for ballot storage and processing than they have in the past, both to accommodate processing of the increased volume of mail ballots and to allow for social distancing during their counting, and many will need to lease commercial space for this purpose. Additional federal funding would enable more officials to pay for the additional space necessary to accommodate these needs.

Counting votes efficiently

Mail voting rates have spiked across the country, including in jurisdictions with historically low mail ballot usage rates, such as Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Many officials in these states lack the equipment — such as letter openers, mail sorters, signature verification software, and high-speed centralized tabulators — capable of automating additional procedures required to process and tabulate mail ballots. While some election officials were able to fund purchases of large equipment, many were not able to afford these purchases.

The need to process and tabulate mail ballots remains even though the purchasing window for the relevant equipment has closed, and election administration tasks like envelope opening and signature verification now must be done manually, which takes a significant amount of time. In New York, for example, it took six weeks to determine the results of two different House primary elections because of the significant volume of mail ballots. footnote10_a7kc1tc 10 Jesse McKinley, Shane Goldmacher, and Matt Stevens, “After 6 Weeks, Victors Are Declared in 2 N.Y. Congressional Primaries,” New York Times, last updated August 17, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/04/nyregion/maloney-torres-ny-congressional-races.html.  To prevent this type of delay, additional temporary staff or, alternatively, the purchase or lease of additional regular scanners (which would also require more space and people to operate) will be necessary. Additional funding can pay these costs.

Educating Voters

TV, radio, print, and digital media buys for public education communications

Christy McCormick, Commissioner of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, has talked about the need for ample voter education, given all the changes voters are likely to face as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. As she stated during an agency hearing:

"[B]efore voters go to the polls or request a ballot, it’s critical that we think about voter education. I’m also very concerned about voters not having the correct information they need to cast their ballots this year. The percentage of rejection of mail ballots across the country has dramatically increased. Voters may unintentionally disenfranchise themselves for failing to properly apply for, fill out, and timely return applications and ballots.

"Postal issues are frankly troubling. When considering how to educate voters on what may be different when they cast a ballot, we cannot overlook the importance of educating citizens, not only about the options to register to vote and update their voter registration during the Covid-19 pandemic, but also how they can vote in person, and how to fill out a mail ballot, and return it, and when. Millions of voters will be using a new process for the first time this year. Voter confusion also leads us to opportunities for misinformation, disinformation, and abuse. Many of the election officials I have heard from are working to increase communications with voters about their options to cast a ballot, and other critical voting information. These ongoing communications will be critical to boost pollster confidence as voters prepare to cast a ballot." footnote11_s8kjhrn 11 Public Hearing: U.S. Election Assistance Commission: Lessons Learned from the 2020 Primary Elections, U.S. Election Assistance Commission (2020) (statement of EAC Commissioner Christy McCormick), https://www.eac.gov/events/2020/07/08/public-hearing-us-election-assistance-commission-lessons-learned-2020-primary.

Even in October, election officials could use additional federal funds to amplify their current voter education efforts.

Additional signage and personnel at voting locations

Overall, safely conducting in-person voting and mail ballot drop off at the polls requires special attention to social distancing, mask wearing, and minimizing the time voters spend in lines, particularly indoors. These needs all impose personnel costs. For example, jurisdictions need additional pollworkers to place social distancing markers, ensure voters standing in line are following social distancing guidelines, check that voters in line are waiting to vote at the right polling place, and direct voters to queue in the correct line — one table may be provided for registration updates, another for voter check-in, and another for voters who need to drop off a mail ballot. Additional pollworkers also can be used by jurisdictions that provide curbside voting services to those with Covid-19 or with symptoms of the virus, like North Carolina and Madison, Wisconsin. footnote12_ge30irp 12 “Curbside Voting,” North Carolina State Board of Elections, accessed September 11, 2020, https://www.ncsbe.gov/voting/help-voters-disabilities/curbside-voting; City of Madison, Wisconsin, “City of Madison to Offer Curbside Voting,” March 19, 2020, https://www.cityofmadison.com/news/city-of-madison-to-offer-curbside-voting.

In addition to paying for personnel, it is not too late to purchase helpful additional signage. Signage placed outside of polling places and drop-off locations can assist voters by directing voters to the proper line or reminding voters to sign mail ballot envelopes before dropping them off. Maricopa County, Arizona, uses these types of signs to facilitate quick drop off of mail ballots and reduce the occurrence of long lines. footnote13_snr0zds 13 Kathren Coleman (Maricopa County, Arizona, former Deputy Recorder), interview by Brennan Center for Justice, September 10, 2020.  Additional funding can help pay for the equipment and personnel needed for modified practices.

Conclusion

Election officials across the country still need additional funds at the state and local level. If additional federal funding comes by early October, the money can still be used to ensure our elections are free, fair, and secure. The Senate failed to act on the HEROES Act earlier this summer, but Congress still has time to fund the items and activities highlighted above — and time is, once again, running out.

 

End Notes