America’s election officials are scrambling to administer upcoming elections during an unprecedented pandemic. Federal assistance is desperately needed to adjust to new realities on the ground. Congress has appropriated $400 million through the CARES Act for emergency election security grants, a critical infusion of cash for election administrators.
On Monday, April 20, BPC hosted an e-briefing with commissioners from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), as well as state and local election officials, to dig into funding issues surrounding the 2020 elections. Below are the main topics discussed during the conversation. For greater detail, including answers to viewers questions, please see the full video.
- The EAC is moving quickly to provide recently appropriated election security grants to the states, according to EAC Chairman Ben Hovland. The EAC has been in contact with every state since the passage of the CARES Act. The majority of states have submitted a request letter to receive funds, as required by the legislation, while some states have requested an extension. Once the EAC receives requests from states, the materials are processed and sent to the Treasury Department for disbursement within 24 hours.
- States are using the funds to make the voting process safe for voters during the COVID-19 crisis. According to EAC Vice Chairman Donald Palmer, the most common justifications cited in states’ requests for funds include increased need for absentee ballot request forms and absentee ballots, training and recruitment of poll workers, and cleaning supplies to sanitize polling places and voting equipment.
- State level officials have hard decisions to make in programming their federal assistance. Rhode Island Election Director Rob Rock said that most of the new funds are targeted for expanding vote by mail in his state. Rhode Island is currently sending postage paid ballot applications to all registered voters ahead of the June 2nd primary. The state is also planning on buying signature verification equipment to expedite mail ballot processing. Rock said Rhode Island is saving some funds for elections later in the year that may not be as heavily impacted by COVID-19. That said, he anticipates still having higher vote-by-mail numbers due to voters discovering how easy and convenient the alternative option is during the June primary.
- Local election officials are on the front lines implementing reforms in response to COVID-19. Michael Winn, Administrator of Elections for Harris County, Texas – the fourth largest election jurisdiction in the country with 2.4 million registered voters – emphasized the importance of coordination across state and local election departments. The goal in his view is to create as many opportunities for voters as possible. Winn also discussed lessons learned following the Texas primary, which occurred at the beginning of the pandemic. Among other reforms, his office is encouraging vote by mail and conducting voter information campaigns, as well as reevaluating their Election Day preparedness by reviewing their facilities to ensure that countywide vote centers are in large enough spaces to accommodate social distancing requirements.