‘We are still short’: Local officials plead with Congress for more money to protect 2020 election

Election officials across the US are raising alarms about their readiness for the 2020 vote, warning of trouble if Congress doesn’t quickly send an infusion of cash to prepare for the treacherous polling season ahead.

Under threat of pandemic and fears of tampering, state and local officials are getting ready for the all-new demands at a time when their budgets are stretched paper-thin. And with each passing day this week, President Donald Trump and Congress seem increasingly unlikely to reach a deal that would send badly needed funds to help bolster the system.

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In interviews with more than a dozen elected officials from Michigan to Missouri, CNN has learned there is a growing concern that the infrastructure, manpower and safety protocols needed to conduct timely and fair elections amid a global pandemic are in jeopardy across the country as local officials watch Congress and the White House struggle to find a deal on a broader stimulus package.

“There are enough things to worry about with this election,” said Gerry Pelissero, the county clerk for Gogebic County, Michigan. “The last thing we should worry about is will we be able to pay for it.”

The good news, experts say, is that the investment needed is relatively small compared with the price tags of the major stimulus bills that have come out of Washington over the last six months. The Brennan Center, a nonpartisan arm of New York University, estimated earlier this year that it would cost approximately $4 billion nationally to pay for more poll workers, personal protective equipment, staff to count additional mail-in ballots and technological advancements that could help ensure that results are determined in a timely fashion.

Compared with the more than $3 trillion spent so far, experts say, it is a drop in the bucket. More concerning, they argue, is how hard a fight it has become to secure any funding from Congress at all.

“It is such a small investment that is needed to ensure the stability and safety of our election system. It is just mind-boggling that it is so difficult to accomplish that and that Congress cannot agree to make that basic investment in our government and in the democratic system,” said Wendy Weiser, vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center. “That this is such a heavy lift points to some dramatic failure of governance.”

Stalled negotiations, dwindling funds

On Capitol Hill, election assistance funding has become one of the primary sticking points in negotiations between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer and the White House. Democrats passed the HEROES Act in May, appropriating $3.6 billion in election funds, while the Senate Republicans’ proposal included none. Talks have stalled, with no sign of moving toward an agreement.

Local officials said they expect money from the March CARES Act, which included $400 million in election assistance, to run out before November.

In Greene County, Missouri, the $150,000 received from the federal government earlier this year is almost gone. Nearly $50,000 was spent on plexiglass shields to protect workers in the primary. Another $50,000 was spent for a high-speed ballot counting machine to help process the unusually high number of mail-in ballots the county expects. More funding went to hire additional staff to help clean the facilities between voters and, in Missouri, every absentee ballot has to be opened and inspected by a bipartisan team. With more ballots coming through the mail, the cost of those inspectors is expected to skyrocket.

Staring down the budget, County Clerk Shane Schoeller, a Republican, says they don’t have the money right now to cover what needs to be done.

“We are still short $60,000,” Schoeller told CNN. “This is about on the night of the election, regardless of who you voted for, voters need to know who the next president is.”

With county and state budgets strapped from a decline in revenues because of the virus shutdowns, many local officials say the federal government may be the only place to turn to ensure they have the funding they need.

“The bottom line is this election is going to cost dramatically more,” said Terry Burton, the director of Ohio’s Wood County Board of Elections. “The preparations involved, the personal protective equipment, the postage costs, the amount of staffing to accommodate all the different aspects of running an election during a pandemic is going to dramatically increase the cost of elections all over Ohio and across the country.”

More mail-in voting means spending more money

For many states, including Ohio, where the majority of voting normally would happen in person, the increase in mail-in voting has created a new financial strain on local government.

“We are set up for in-person voting and that is not going to be the reality of this election. That changes what we do and where we need new personnel,” Burton said.

Burton said a normal presidential election would cost about $750,000, but this year he anticipates Wood County’s costs could be up to 50% more. While the county received about $100,000 in CARES funding, Burton said, “That is not going to cover it.”

“We are running this mail election … but we still have to deploy those same resources for in-person voting on Election Day,” Burton said. “To me, it is nonpartisan. To say that this election is going to cost more is just a fact that exists because of what we need to do to protect the voters, protect the process and protect the poll workers in this environment.”

Part of the issue is that many states are increasing the ability to vote by mail in order to avoid voting in person because of concerns that people in crowded polling locations could easily spread coronavirus. In Bremer County, Iowa, auditor Shelley Wolf said she had to rent additional spaces to hold elections so that people could remain distant.

“That was $5,000 I didn’t plan to spend,” she said.

As a result, states that are normally prepared to operate one in-person election are now trying to run two elections: one in person and one by mail, says Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson, who focuses on election law.

“I think they are trying to do two things with the resources to do half of one thing well, meaning they are trying to do in-person and vote by mail, when they have the funding to do in-person halfway decently at best,” Levinson said.

In late July, 11 secretaries of state sent a letter to Congress pushing for more funding.

“We write in strong support of additional federal funding to enable the smooth and safe administration of elections in 2020,” the 10 Democrats and one Republican wrote to senators including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Schumer. “The stakes are high. And time is short.”

On Capitol Hill, some Republicans argue there should be more funding for election assistance. Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of leadership, said it’s not really a question of whether more money for election security should be included in any stimulus, but how much.

“As we get closer to the election, it gets less partisan because it becomes unrealistic to expect the states to comply with new federal standards,” Blunt said. “There are more expenses this year whether it is in-person or by mail, and we can help with that.”

Asked how much Congress should give, Blunt said, “I’m not negotiating that.”

“I do know that $3.6 billion will not stand any standard of scrutiny. That was a March and April number. All the primaries have already been had. We need to have enough money to do our best and be sure that the November election can be held safely, and the results can be handled in an appropriate way,” Blunt said.

Working against the clock

The absence of progress on Capitol Hill, however, may not change anytime soon. It’s been nearly a week since negotiators have met and anticipation is growing that any new funding for election security could get pushed off to the fight at the end of September over government funding.

The lack of certainty has forced states to begin planning without any guarantee that they will get the money they need.

Tracy Wimmer, the spokeswoman for the office of the secretary of state in Michigan, said the state is anticipating it will need approximately $15 million to run the election after having already allocated $13 million.

“We allocated our initial CARES Act funds with no expectation of additional funding. However, Secretary Benson has been vocal that those funds were insufficient since they were approved by Congress,” Wimmer said.

In Connecticut, Secretary of State Denise Merrill’s office says they are planning to run the November election with the funding they already have, but additional funding from Congress would allow them to fund critically important purchases, like more drop boxes to place across the state so people can drop off absentee ballots to ensure their votes are in by Election Day.

“We did not count on anything that we haven’t already received,” said Gabe Rosenberg, Merrill’s communications director. “That being said, of course we need more from the federal government.”

Right now, the state has 200 drop boxes. Connecticut has 169 towns, so there are enough boxes for each town and a few extra in the towns that have bigger populations. But Rosenberg said the state would buy more boxes if it had more funding.

Rosenberg said it would also buy additional PPE for poll workers.

“There’s immeasurable things we could do with just a little bit more money,” Rosenberg said.