Skip Navigation

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_9tb054k 1 Wiscon­sin Elec­tions Commis­sion, April 7, 2020 Absentee Voting Report, May 15, 2020, 11, https://elec­­–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.elec­; “Where’s My Ballot,” Cali­for­nia Secret­ary of State, accessed Septem­ber 11, 2020,­tions/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.wash­ing­ton­­ics/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_eum6gc7 2 Maggie Miller, “State and Local Offi­cials Beg Congress to Send More Elec­tion Funds ahead of Novem­ber,” The Hill, July 8, 2020,­se­cur­ity/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_69694gm 3 “Consid­er­a­tions for Elec­tion Polling Loca­tions and Voters,” Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion, last updated June 22, 2020,­tion-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_lxqq1r2 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_8xam­s2x 5 Center for Tech and Civic Life, “50 Ideas for Recruit­ing and Retain­ing Poll­work­ers,” August 3, 2020, https://www.techand­­ing-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_rp7jk25 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.stan­  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_5nmg3w3 7 “2020 General Elec­tion Early Vote Stat­ist­ics,” U.S. Elec­tions Project, accessed Septem­ber 11, 2020, https://elect­pro­ 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_hd0xyae 8 Bren­nan Center for Justice, Ensur­ing Safe Elec­tions, 2020, 8, https://www.bren­nan­cen­–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_3htk­w0h 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,—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,­fi­cient-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_6tmiskb 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,­gion/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_mcxsob3 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),­ing-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_22ecywk 12 “Curb­side Voting,” North Caro­lina State Board of Elec­tions, accessed Septem­ber 11, 2020,­il­it­ies/curb­side-voting; City of Madison, Wiscon­sin, “City of Madison to Offer Curb­side Voting,” March 19, 2020,­­side-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_2kp0kln 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.


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