'This wasn't in anyone's budget': Pandemic warps election plans

In March, Congress sent $400 million to state election offices to help process absentee ballots and staff polling sites amid the pandemic. Analysts say they need $2 billion.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla talks during a news conference, Jan. 28, 2019, at the Capitol in Sacramento, California. “It is appalling that Congress has not provided the needed resources for state and local elections officials," Mr. Padilla said.

Congress' failure so far to pass another round of coronavirus aid leaves state and local officials on their own to deal with the soaring costs of holding a presidential election amid a deadly pandemic.

That could leave them scrambling to solve problems that surfaced during the primary season in time for November's election.

The coronavirus outbreak has triggered unprecedented disruptions for election officials across the United States. They are dealing with staffing shortages and budget constraints while also trying to figure out how to process a flood of absentee ballot requests, as more and more states have moved to mail-in balloting as a safer way to vote.

"It is appalling that Congress has not provided the needed resources for state and local elections officials during the COVID-19 pandemic," said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. "Elections officials' ability to fill the gap is nearly impossible given the already strained state and local government budgets."

In its first round of virus relief in March, Congress sent $400 million to state election offices to help cover unexpected costs related to the pandemic. But that is far short of the $2 billion the Brennan Center for Justice has said is needed.

"Congress's failure to reach a coronavirus deal is imperiling November's elections," said Wendy Weiser, director of the center's democracy program. "Without an infusion of federal funds, election officials simply won't be able to prepare adequately for the election, and we will see massive meltdowns across the country."

The negotiation meltdown raises the prospect of more layoffs and furloughs of government workers and cuts to health care, social services, infrastructure, and other core programs. Lack of money to boost school safety measures also will make it harder for districts to send kids back to the classroom.

On Monday, governors, lawmakers, mayors, teachers, and others said they were going to keep pushing members of Congress to revive talks on another rescue package.

“Congress and the White House made a commitment to the governors that there would be a second round of relief for states – we are going to hold their feet to the fire until they uphold that commitment,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, said in a statement.

In the U.S., state and local officials are responsible for administering elections and covering the costs. But there was no way for them to plan for holding an election in the middle of a pandemic, essentially having to deal with a massive surge in absentee ballots while also trying to keep in-person voting options available after many workers opted out of staffing the polls during the primaries.

"This wasn't in anyone's budget," said Ben Hovland, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which provides support for state and local election officials.

Experts point to the rocky execution of the primaries since the pandemic began, in which there were numerous reports of absentee ballots failing to arrive or rejected for being late. Primaries were marred by hours-long lines in Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Las Vegas as polling places were consolidated.

"Without proper funding, guidance, and preparedness, the problems seen in previous elections are going to be just the tip of the iceberg this November," Sylvia Albert, voting and elections director with Common Cause, warned lawmakers during a congressional hearing last week.

If more federal money is made available, it could allow local election offices to hire more temporary workers to help process ballot requests and count ballots on Election Day. It also could be used to boost the pay of poll workers.

In Ohio, Secretary of State Frank LaRose has said he would seek approval to pay postage for absentee ballot applications and returned ballots if he had more money.

In New Mexico, state election regulators are anticipating a $6 million shortfall without additional funding for the November general election. Of the nearly $3.9 million New Mexico received in the first round of congressional virus relief, all but $750,000 was spent during the primary, according to Alex Curtas, spokesman for Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who has been pushing for more funding for elections, said she remains hopeful a deal can be reached. But she warned that the window was closing for states to take action, such as paying the cost of postage, purchasing drop boxes for ballots, and recruiting and training a new group of poll workers.

"If Congress acts quickly, states can still implement these measures to help keep voters safe this November," Ms. Klobuchar said. "September seems way too late to make a big difference."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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