Leaders across the world now speak of battling COVID-19 as if we were at war. A lot of daily life changes during war, but one thing has remained consistent for Americans during wartime over the past 175 years: federal Election Day is the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
Election Day 2020 will look very different. We are certain of that. Even if the current crisis has passed, we expect that there will be much resistance to go back into crowded spaces. It will mean fewer people voting in person and many more people voting by mail. There are many policy considerations for state administrators and legislators that BPC outlined earlier in the week. There is some time to deal with those policy nuances.
There is not, however, time to wait on a decision about how to fund the ramp up to more voting by mail. Congress is considering multiple bills to shore up the economy before it adjourns until an uncertain date in the future. These emergency bills must include funds for rapid expansion of voting by mail because appropriations made later than now will have almost no chance of impacting the 2020 federal election. This funding will be necessary regardless of whether Congress eventually weighs in on mandating vote by mail in all jurisdictions.
Congress has appropriated a total of $805 million in funding for election security grants in FY2018 and FY2020. The grants are passed to states through the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which has determined that the funds must be spent within five years. The grants are authorized by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 and broadly support activities to improve the administration of elections for Federal office. These past two grants were allocated to the states in proportion to their populations.
In the emergency supplemental, Congress should appropriate funding specifically for improvements to the administration of elections for federal office with respect to voting by mail. These improvements can 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 central count tabulation machines, high-speed scanners for jurisdictions, training, and more.
Congress should appropriate a large amount, we think $1.5 billion would be required, and funds would be returned by EAC to the Treasury on January 1, 2021 if not requested by the states. States would have to quickly prepare an emergency plan to reflect how administrators would spend the funds to increase vote by mail capacity before requesting the funds from the EAC, which would then prioritize sending money to the states as quickly as possible. States would also need to commit to sending the bulk of this funding to local election jurisdictions, which are responsible for voting by mail, unless the state’s solution includes a more centrally-administered vote by mail process.
Previous federal funding to the states included a state match of funds, ranging from 5%-20%. This tranche of emergency funding would not require a state match. That would help to speed up the flow of funds to the states, especially when state legislatures may no longer be meeting and could not authorize a match of funds.
This plan is not equitable. Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Hawaii are all vote by mail states. Other states with high rates of voting by mail have already made key investments. They likely will not need as much emergency assistance since they have already made investments in the supporting infrastructure.
Unlike the previous HAVA security grants, this emergency funding will be need-dependent, not based on states receiving funds based on population size. EAC would be directed to be as expansive in its definition about what should qualify as aiding in the expansion of vote by mail capacity. We are in this together as a country, and our democracy depends on a fair and legitimate election.
Federal funding will make the November elections go more smoothly. It is the best the federal government can do right now as states and local jurisdictions work on the policy issues.