Asked in a recent interview how things were going as Election Day draws near, a state elections director paused, searching for the right words.
“I feel like I’ve got democracy in a boat,” the director told The Daily Beast, “and my staff is bailing water out while people are drilling holes in it.”
That official, who spoke anonymously to discuss the situation candidly, sums up how many election officials around the country are feeling right now. In normal times, they’re a group of professionals used to getting the job done with what meager funds they typically get—proud of it, even.
Few, however, have seen a year so challenging to the basic functions of democracy as 2020. In a matter of months, the coronavirus pandemic has totally reshaped the way Americans vote. Attacks on the process have increased, with President Donald Trump leading the way by characterizing COVID-era changes—such as expanded vote-by-mail—as tantamount to a Democratic-led ploy to steal the election from him. Election budgets, meanwhile, are endangered as the state and local governments that fund election budgets scramble to cover massive shortfalls as the economy ground to a standstill.
Yet there’s more work than ever for elections officials to do. They’re funding awareness campaigns to inform people how to vote, finding new spaces for in-person voting, expanding mail voting and tracking down personal protective equipment for election workers.
In March, Washington signaled it was ready to aid this herculean task: $400 million of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act was earmarked for election support grants, to be shared by the states, territories, and the District of Columbia. That money got used up, and fast, in many places.
And not a dollar has come from Congress since, leaving elections officials in a familiar place—doing their best with what they have—but under the unfamiliar conditions of an unprecedented pandemic that’s seen the integrity of the vote questioned in new ways.
Leaders in the field stress that they’ll be able to get the job done no matter what. “We’re famous for contingency planning,” said Christopher Piper, the commissioner of elections for Virginia. “We could do more with more. That said, we feel well prepared for this election.”
But there’s little denying that the task will be harder this year. “I’m incredibly saddened,” said the unnamed state elections director, “that Congress couldn’t get this done.”
Members of both parties on Capitol Hill have pushed for more money. House Democrats’ follow-up stimulus bill, titled the Heroes Act, proposed an additional $3.6 billion in election aid. But Republicans, who opposed that entire bill, rejected its provision that states accepting election grants be required to expand vote-by-mail, and have instead proposed sending another $400 million batch of election grants.
Congress and the Trump administration had been in protracted talks over another pandemic stimulus deal, but on Tuesday, Trump himself tweeted any possibility of a deal into oblivion. “Nancy Pelosi is asking for $2.4 Trillion Dollars to bailout poorly run, high crime, Democrat States, money that is in no way related to COVID-19,” the president declared.
Even before that, however, officials were already acknowledging that it was probably too late for more money to make a difference. “There are lots of things that need to happen to make this election safe, but we’re running out of time,” Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), who sits on the House panel with jurisdiction over federal elections, told The Daily Beast on Monday. “For all intents and purposes, we’re out of time.”
It was something of a minor political miracle that Congress was able to approve $400 million in election funds in the first place, say those involved with the push. Those funds, envisioned by some as an initial outlay to help states lay the groundwork for an election during COVID-19, have been helpful, say officials and experts.
Most governments have blown through their allotments—which ranged from $3 million for Wyoming to $36 million for California—with investments in everything from mail ballot logistics to TV advertisements to hand sanitizer for polling places.
Some states used up their funds simply in preparing for primary elections, and have little left for expenses they might require for the general election—requiring election administrators to go hat-in-hand to governors and state legislatures to ask for the necessary resources.
On the other hand, some jurisdictions still haven’t gotten their share: Florida’s Polk County, for example, is still waiting on its election grant from the state government, which is doling out funds to counties that apply. Lori Edwards, Polk County’s elections director, told The Daily Beast that the state informed her it would deliver the funds back in August, after the county requested them. She’s heard nothing since then.
Thankfully, said Edwards, the county government offered to foot the bill for whatever the federal contribution would have been. It’s a lucky break for Polk, given how plummeting sales taxes and increased expenses have squeezed local governments nationwide to the brink of fiscal disaster during the pandemic.
And the move eased a major burden on election administration in this county of 600,000 in central Florida’s heartland. “When you get 33 days out from what is undoubtedly one of the most challenging elections that any election professional has seen… you really need to keep your eye on what's important every minute for this month before the election,” said Edwards. “I have to tell you, worrying about collection of this CARES money is not on our top ten list.”
Elsewhere, federal money got tied up in states’ own budgeting processes: Oregon, for example, could not use its $5.6 million allotment for months because doing so required the approval of the state legislature, which had by that point adjourned. And on the other hand, lawmakers like Fudge said that the way some states misused their funds was so inappropriate that they warrant future congressional investigation. “Some of them have done things with the money that have nothing to do with allowing people to vote,” claimed Fudge.
But election officials stress that the funds have mostly gone toward what they were meant to. “By and large, it has been quite useful,” said Larry Norden, director of the elections reform program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “We worked a big coalition to get that small amount of money to the states… election officials were shocked. They’re not used to getting money from Congress.”
But, said Norden, the total was “not nearly sufficient” to meet the enormous need for the entire year. “That means they’re going to be under huge strain,” he said of the country’s election officials. They’re under huge strain now, and they’re gonna be under huge strain when they’re counting the ballots. That’s particularly unfortunate given the political environment we’re in.”
Indeed, the fundamental mechanics of voting and elections have rarely been more openly politicized than they are now. Trump and his allies have repeatedly said that expanded absentee voting measures invite fraud—an assertion with little factual basis—and said the only way Trump would lose to Democratic nominee Joe Biden is if the election were “rigged.” Any errors or irregularities from election authorities in any part of the country will be under an intense microscope before, during, and after the election.
And there will be mistakes, experts predict. “There are going to be more mistakes because there wasn’t adequate funding of elections,” said Norden.
Despite the high stakes, the issue failed to break through on Capitol Hill in the months since the CARES Act passed. Before Trump torpedoed stimulus talks on Tuesday, talks over additional COVID relief focused on extending unemployment benefits, sending out more stimulus checks, and aid to specific industries and state and local governments. The blow-up all but ensures that additional funding for elections will be among those casualties of the breakdown.
Republicans, who since March have pushed smaller stimulus bills focusing on economic aid, have not been as vocal in pushing for more election funds as Democrats. Funds for election grants were not included in versions of stimulus legislation introduced by Senate Republicans in July and September, though House Republicans pushed a standalone bill in August to get states another round of $400 million grants.
The GOP has objected to Democrats’ proposals for delivering additional election funds—such as the stipulation that states accepting any of the $3.6 billion in Heroes Act money expand their vote by mail systems. GOP secretaries of state have also criticized requirements that state governments match 20 percent of the federal offer in order to get a cent of money to begin with.
In August, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee that oversees federal elections, said he was working with Democrats to try to secure more funding and loosen some of the requirements attached to the grants.
Even then, however, he expressed urgency that time was running out. “With 75 or so days left, the money becomes less helpful the longer we wait to get it to the states, and I'd like to see it part of a package that would see that states got money,” said Blunt.
That urgency was not widely shared, and it’s all but certain that the $400 million states received in March is all they will get from Washington.
Democrats like Fudge claim that any blame for Congress’ failure to come through on election aid should be laid squarely at the feet of congressional Republicans. “Secretaries of state want to do the right thing—they don't want their states to look as if they’re not functional,” said Fudge. “The vast majority, be they Democratic or Republican, want to run a good election. It is my colleagues who don't want to run a fair election. So they don't want to help.”
State election officials—some of whom are party-affiliated and some of whom are non-partisan altogether—are generally careful not to assign blame, not to a party or to a branch of government. They are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. The state election official who worried about bailing out the boat of democracy, so to speak, said “a lot of us are making multiple plans—plans if we’re funded, plans if we’re underfunded, plans if we’re not funded at all.”
Piper, the Virginia elections commissioner, said that the extraordinary challenges facing elections this year are here to stay. “These one time infusions of cash are certainly helpful. The fact of the matter is, none of these problems are going away,” said Piper.
“When we have a successful election, they say, they had everything they needed, so let’s move on to the next problem… Problems don’t magically disappear because we did a good job. We did a good job in spite of a lack of resources.”