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CARES Act Just a First Step in Preparing for November Elections

This week, House and Senate leaders struck a deal on the most expansive economic package in US history. The $2 trillion bill will provide a jolt to a lagging economy amidst social distancing, lockdowns, and widespread pandemic concerns. But it’s not just an economic measure. Our democracy gets a boost as well.

Last week, BPC urged Congress to consider the challenges posed by COVID-19 to the 2020 elections as it develops a response.  Specifically, states across the country are considering an expansion of absentee and vote-by-mail systems to reduce social contact at polling places.

Only five states are currently all or mostly vote-by-mail, meaning that to meet the expected surge in mail voting, states and local jurisdictions would encounter a costly overhaul of their existing operations. And while vote by mail is getting most of the attention for how to vote in November, other areas of election administration will also need to be rethought before Americans vote this fall.

At BPC, we commend Congress’ allocation of $400 million dollars in election grants to help states “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.” This funding will prove essential in making sure this year’s elections proceed safely, accurately, and legitimately. At the same time, it must be a first step, not the last.

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CARES Act Breakdown: $400M in Elections Funding

The package includes $400 million in “Election Security Grants…to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, for the 2020 Federal election cycle.” The election grants align with BPC policy recommendations on several key fronts:

State Reporting Requirements: BPC recommended that states prepare an emergency spending plan to help instruct the EAC on who to distribute funds to first. While this much is not specified in the stimulus, Congress did require that states provide the EAC with a detailed report of how the funds were spent within 20 days of each election in the 2020 Federal election cycle.

Fast and Flexible Distribution of Funds: BPC previously recommended that additional coronavirus-related funding be “need dependent,” or based on the extent to which states need funding to expand vote-by-mail, rather than based on state population alone. Leaving room for this possibility, the stimulus package does not specify state-by-state distribution requirements and leaves the responsibility of disbursement to the EAC. This flexibility will be a key player in both quickly getting funds to states, as well as allowing them to use the money where it is most needed. For additional context on how flexibility in funding will impact election administration this cycle, check out this E-Briefing hosted by BPC on Voting in the time of Coronavirus.

States should prioritize the following when allocating their emergency elections funds:

  1. Develop the infrastructure necessary to support expanded vote-by-mail operations.
    • Expanding vote by mail capacity is not as easy as it might seem. For some jurisdictions, a high percentage of mail voting is business as usual, but for others it is a brand-new experience. Regardless of whether states choose to implement an all-mail election or whether voters themselves decide to avail themselves of the option, there will be an increase in vote by mail in November.
    • Ensuring that all the logistics of vote-by-mail are accounted for when using their funds. This could include funding for massive increases in printed mail ballots, postage for sending the ballots to voters and pre-paid postage for the return of the ballot from voters, new envelope and ballot processing machines, high-speed scanners for jurisdictions, voter education campaigns, staff training, and more.
  2. Ensure that localities are not left of out of the spending loop.
    • Typically, it is local jurisdictions who are responsible for the creation, distribution, and counting of mail ballots. As such, states without an existing, centrally administered vote-by-mail system should allocate the bulk of their grants to localities.
    • In addition to ensuring that localities have the resources necessary for an all-mail election, states should offer localities guidance on vote-by-mail best practices concerning technology, counting, and ballot-distribution and collection. There will be additional policy considerations for consideration before the voting starts, such as signature verification, notification of voters, and ballot tracking.

The extra $400 million provided by the CARES Act is an essential step in keeping our elections safe, secure, and accurate. With funding soon to come, it is now up to state and local governments to use it wisely.

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