Heading into Georgia’s June 9 primary, McDuffie County Elections Director Phyllis Brooks had no choice but to assemble a last-minute crew to count votes.
Two of her three staffers were out with COVID-19. She had more than 2,500 absentee ballots to tally by hand
So Brooks brought in a handful of county employees and hired local teenagers to do the counting. Now, there’s no money left in her election office budget. Not for poll workers. Not for extra hands to count what is expected to be a record number of mail-in ballots. Not even for stamps to send out the absentee ballots they expect to need.
Sixteen weeks before a presidential election, Brooks and hundreds of other cash-strapped elections supervisors across the nation are waiting to see how much state and federal money will be coming their way.
Experts say the coronavirus pandemic has tacked on hundreds of millions of dollars in unexpected costs to this year’s election. And there are clear signs that an emergency federal infusion of $400 million made in March will fall far short of what’s needed.
Money buys the material needed to pull off a free and fair election, said Nathaniel Persily, an election law professor with Stanford Law School. This year, though, “local jurisdictions are literally relying on philanthropy to help pull off this election,” he said, pointing to a Chicago nonprofit that donated $6.3 million to five Wisconsin cities. “It’s like we are holding a bake sale for our democracy.”
Dozens of interviews with local election clerks, state officials and advocates by USA TODAY Network, Columbia Journalism Investigations and the PBS series FRONTLINE reveal the country’s patchwork election system is already fraying. And a proposal to provide states an additional $3.6 billion in federal money to support cratering election budgets has yet to be voted on by the U.S. Senate.
Academics and experts said the $400 million that has already been allocated is too little and its distribution too slow. In key swing states, cash and resources are only now trickling down to the locals responsible for running elections.
As a result, expensive equipment that could speed tabulating votes, open absentee envelopes or check voter signatures remain out of reach for many.
The mailing costs alone to deal with increased absentee voting are expected to add up to tens of millions of dollars, according to figures compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York think tank.
Another $140 million would be required to replace poll workers who dropped out citing COVID-19 risks and pay raises to keep workers who didn’t. Then there will be staffing to count the extra ballots, extra training to replace poll workers who fall ill and gallons of hand sanitizer for polling stations.
Election officials are too often “at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to resources,” said former Michigan director of elections Christopher Thomas, a fellow with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
But with predictions of massive turnout this November, they will need every dollar. “Even in the best of times, the system would struggle to process this many votes on election day,” he said. “Can they get it done? That’s the big question.”
Not every state will need to offset the threat of COVID-19 with large-scale, multimillion purchases. But all face unexpected and budget-sapping costs.
Paulding County, Georgia expects to receive $8,000 from the state, but that will not even cover almost $10,000 the supervisor of elections shelled out for mail-in ballot drop boxes. In Greene County, Missouri, the bill for sneeze guards topped $46,000. Lycoming County, Pennsylvania bought an $11,000, 245-pound high-speed letter opener to handle mail-in ballots.
Already, Lansing, Michigan City Clerk Chris Swope is warning voters that no one should expect to know who won three city council seats — or any other race — on election night.
And short of a landslide, it’s possible no one will know who won the White House Nov. 4. If it is very close, the count could go to Thanksgiving — or longer, predicted Greg Miller, co-founder and chief operations officer of the OSET Institute, a research firm developing open source technology for voting systems.
Should the election system falter, even in a few key states, the fallout could make the 2000 Gore-Bush election chaos “look like a spring ball,” Miller said.
“No one is going quietly into that night.”
Split among 50 states, Washington D.C. and five U.S. territories, the $400 million federal CARES Act money missed the mark by more than $3 billion, Brennan Center for Justice wrote in an April report.
“The funding is not sufficient for what is needed in this new world,” said James City County, Virginia Director of Elections Dianna Moorman at a recent hearing held by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
Three battleground states alone — Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — would need more than a quarter of a billion dollars to meet safety and security goals outlined in a separate report published by a bipartisan group of academics and policy advocates. That includes millions for unbudgeted COVID-related costs, such as renting polling places large enough to accommodate social distancing and beefing up cybersecurity for election officials working from home.
The sooner local election directors get the money, the sooner they can prepare for November’s widely predicted historic turnout, said Liz Howard, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.
The Election Assistance Commission expedited release of the $400 million CARES money and predicted it would be distributed by April 10. However, 30 states did not even ask for the money until after that date. Florida, Nevada, Virginia and Oklahoma waited until May to make their requests. Oklahoma asked for half its share. Utah asked for less than half, saying it already had a strong vote-by-mail structure in place.
Multiple states did not begin allocating the money to county and local election offices until June, roughly four months before the election.
That’s cutting it close, said Forrest K. Lehman, elections director for Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. “Six months out, that’s when you can turn the ship, that’s when you can make changes.”
Different states have taken different approaches to using the money, and some have been more time-consuming than others. In Alabama, for instance, checks were cut to counties after a group of local officials, not just the elections office, first agreed upon what was needed.
Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee did not ask for $20.2 million in CARES Act funding until mid-May, shortly after the state’s association of county elections supervisors wrote in a widely publicized letter that, “Florida is lagging behind nearly every other state in securing (federal) funding for elections.” In the meantime, the Florida Supervisors of Elections wrote, “While we wait, the goods and services we need are becoming scarce.”
Only four states conducted all-mail elections prior to 2020, and it took them years to hone the systems, equipment and training to do it. November marks the first time any Michigan voter can cast a mail-in ballot in a presidential election, a herculean shift. But the Michigan Secretary of State’s office had spent only about 30 percent of its $11.2 million in CARES money by mid-June, on absentee ballot applications. It was month’s end before state officials tentatively decided how to spend the rest.
“More funding is crucial, the funding and support we need, it’s out there, it’s been talked about; we just don’t have it yet,” said Cynthia Bower, city clerk for Taylor, Michigan.
In Arizona, the governor did not release the money to the secretary of state until July 2. By then, the Republican-led Legislature had pulled $500,000 from the overall state election budget.
Congress built in its own delays. States must match 20 percent of the federal money within two years, or risk paying back the entire amount. California’s $36.4 million award, for instance, calls for it to spend $7.2 million of its own money. Mississippi’s $4.7 million requires a $945,608 match.
Some state legislatures had already adjourned when CARES passed and could not appropriate the money. Further, the same spiraling economy that prompted Congress to pass CARES also made it harder for states to commit to the deal.
Maine’s match translates to roughly $659,000 at a time when tax revenue-producing industries are shuttering in the economic downturn, according to Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap. “The next fiscal year is going to be pretty scary,” he said.
The required match is also why Oklahoma asked for half of the $5.4 million it was entitled to. “We didn’t have it,” said Pam Slater, assistant secretary of the Oklahoma State Election Board.
If the match had been five percent, Slater said, a request for the full amount might have been workable. “Would we have loved to be able to ask for the whole thing?” she asked. “Sure, but we were lucky to be able to ask for a portion of it.”
The country’s aging patchwork of election systems further complicates states’ efforts to navigate November’s election. High speed scanners are the backbone of quickly and accurately counting large numbers of absentee or mail-in ballots, and aging machines are more likely to fail or be vulnerable to hacking. But more than 1,200 jurisdictions — including counties in Texas, Kentucky and Illinois — planned to count absentee ballots using scanners so old they are no longer manufactured.
Louisiana, which has some of the oldest election equipment in the country, arranged months ago to lease new systems. Michigan has earmarked $1.5 million of its CARES cash to help local election offices buy ballot scanners and vote tabulators.
But it is not clear how many elections officials can replace aging equipment at this late date.
Hillsborough County, Florida, Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer said when he recently asked the nation’s largest election system vendor, Elections Systems & Software, if it was possible to lease a back-up high speed scanner, the answer was no.
An ES&S spokeswoman did not directly respond when asked if demand had outstripped its supply of high-speed scanners to sell or lease, but said in an email that the company was working with customers to assess needs. In some cases, she said, officials are “reconfiguring” existing equipment to handle the expected surge in mail-in ballots.
“The train has left the station for major changes,” said Tammy Patrick, senior advisor for elections for the Democracy Fund, a nonpartisan Washington D.C. foundation. New computer equipment, new poll books and testing a new voting system all takes months, she said.
Online systems can allow existing voters to update information and others to register for the first time without risking in-person visits to government offices. But it is too late to create online registration systems, said Patrick and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Thomas.
In Maine, which currently requires in-person registration, “People were saying that we needed to develop an online voter registration system,” said Dunlap, the secretary of state. “But we were lacking time, we were lacking money and we were lacking the people needed to build it.”
There is no guarantee more federal help will be forthcoming. A $3 trillion stimulus bill setting aside $3.6 billion in election appears stalled in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has dismissed it as an “ideological wish list.”
Even if the money were available, some states might not accept it. The bill would override states’ voter ID laws in federal elections and broaden access to mail-in voting. Both are line-in-the-sand issues at the heart of hyper-partisan court battles and campaign strategies by Democrats and Republicans.
“Receiving one-time funds at the expense of radically changing our election system is a trade-off we are not willing to make,” said Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin in June testimony before a Congressional subcommittee on elections.
Similarly, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who chairs the national Republican Secretaries of State Committee, said accepting money from the bill as written would put the federal government in the driver’s seat. “We do not want them to tell us how to use those resources,” he said.
At the local level, though, this is not a political issue, said Jeff Greenburg, election director in Mercer County, Pennsylvania. It is a crisis.
“As a local election official, I would love to see Congress and other levels stay away from using funding to change election laws,” Greenburg said. “They always try to tie in both issues and that ends up stopping it in its tracks.
“This is an emergency. Let’s get the funding out there.”
This story is produced in partnership with Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School, and the PBS series FRONTLINE.
Pat Beall is a reporter with GANNETT / USA TODAY Network. Contact Pat at [email protected], by phone or Signal at 561 670 0462 or Twitter, @beall1.
Catharina Felke is a reporter with Columbia Journalism Investigations. Contact Catharina at [email protected] or @catharinafelke.
Elizabeth Mulvey, is a reporter with Columbia Journalism Investigations. Contact Elizabeth at [email protected] or @E_Mulvey58, or by phone or Signal at 609-273-6601.