Decline in federal grant funding for local elections criticized by advocates

Voters in many states, including Pa., have also come to expect such pandemic conveniences as increased options for voting by mail

By: - March 18, 2022 6:30 am

(Capital-Star photo)

WASHINGTON — The $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill passed by Congress last week includes $75 million in Help America Vote Act grants — a major reduction compared to years past.

Experts say the $75 million is insufficient to fund local elections and leaves local election offices without resources to improve election infrastructure and protect the security of elections.

Though Congress has only funded local elections three times since 2010, the $75 million in the latest spending bill is far from the $53 billion over 10 years that election security experts say is necessary. It’s also far less than the $500 million proposed by the House in its original spending proposal.

“It’s always great to see Congress getting resources to state and local election officials and really recognizing their responsibility to help fund elections, but $75 million is far short of what is needed right now to really secure and protect our election infrastructure,” said Derek Tisler, counsel with the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“It’s also considerably less than the funding we saw in recent years leading up to the 2020 election.”

In 2018 and 2020 respectively, Congress approved $380 million and $425 million in HAVA Election Security Funds for states to improve the administration of elections for federal office.

But Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said that while the spending bill is a decrease from prior years, she still considers it a win.

“The House bill proposed to reinstate Election Security Grant funding, a priority for House Democrats, after receiving no funding last year,” the Connecticut Democrat said in a statement. “With slim margins in both chambers, passage of the final federal spending package relied on our ability to reach agreements. This transformative federal spending package — including this $75 million in new Election Security Grant funding — is a victory.”

In response to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Congress also designated $400 million for emergency election funding as part of the CARES Act.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission explained that the funding could be used to protect the health and safety of poll workers, staff, and voters during federal elections, including buying cleaning supplies and protective masks and hiring staff needed to process an increased number of absentee ballots.

Though the pandemic is not yet over and many parts of the country may have to administer elections this year while still seeing high case rates, Congress’ latest spending bill does not fund President Joe Biden’s plan to continue fighting COVID-19 and prepare for future variants, nor does it allocate money specifically for administering an election in this unusual time.

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Voters in many states have also come to expect some conveniences that debuted during the 2020 election as a result of the pandemic, like increased options for voting by mail, and election officials will need the money to make sure they don’t have to eliminate them.

“To the extent that those things were temporary in 2020, a lot of states are now looking to make them permanent and make them better and more efficient for voters, and that takes a lot of resources,” Tisler said.

Lack of staff, poor broadband

After the 2020 election, the Center for Secure and Modern Elections and the Center for Tech and Civic Life spoke with local election departments about the challenges they faced because of the lack of funding for local election administration.

Tiana Epps-Johnson, executive director of the Center for Tech and Civic Life, said she heard from departments that can’t hire adequate staff or afford facilities to process ballots, or that have such poor broadband access that they struggle to download basic files from the state.

“Hearing these stories coming out of 2020, it became really, really clear that one of the most, if not the most important thing we can do as a country to support the integrity of our elections, is to make sure that local election departments in every community have the funding that they need to be able to predictably and reliably provide a smooth process for voters,” she said.

In partnership with local election officials, the groups formed the Election Infrastructure Initiative and began advocating for increased election funding to improve the physical and technological infrastructure behind elections.

In December, the initiative released a report finding that state and local election departments need more than $53 billion over 10 years. “Given that elections are funded in a way that requires local, state, and federal resources, we’re calling on Congress to do their part and contribute $20 billion of that $53 billion that’s required,” Epps-Johnson said.

“When we got news of the level of funding that was included in the omnibus budget of just $75 million for grants for election departments, we were really disappointed because that is nowhere near the scale of investment that’s required for election departments to do their very basic and critical work,” she added.

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In December, 14 Democratic chief election officials from states across the country wrote a letter to Biden requesting that he include $5 billion for election infrastructure in his fiscal 2023 budget.

“Election security and integrity are a vital cornerstone of our democracy,” they wrote. “But because of years of underinvestment by the federal government, too many voters and election workers contend with elections infrastructure that has reached the end of its shelf life.”

Aging voting machines

A recent Brennan Center and Verified Voting analysis found that it will cost roughly half a billion dollars over the next five years to replace voting equipment that is over 10 years old, and experts say that voting machines should be replaced about every 10 years because that’s when they become more vulnerable to security issues and harder to maintain.

Federal election funding before the next presidential election is especially important to ensure adequate staffing levels at a time when 1 in 5 local election officials say they are contemplating leaving their job before the 2024 election.

“Getting more funding and resources certainly could make their jobs easier and make them more comfortable in their jobs,” Tisler said, noting that officials could invest in security and training to help defend themselves against the increased threats they face as election officials since 2020.

There is also bipartisan interest in improving election infrastructure. A February poll from the left-leaning Data for Progress found that 74 percent of voters support funding from Congress to state and local governments to upgrade voting equipment and security systems.

“Our latest polling finds a majority of voters overall support investment in elections infrastructure, and that they want our federal government to invest in ensuring their voices are heard and their votes are secure come election day,” said Sean McElwee, executive director of Data for Progress. “It’s time for Congress to do something about it.”

Though the next high-turnout presidential election is still more than two years away, experts said now is the time to invest in infrastructure like new voting equipment.

Tisler said election officials typically work on a two-year timeline because it takes time to assess their needs, go through a competitive bidding process, find equipment, and implement it at a time that’s not a high-turnout election.

“If you want to make a difference for the 2024 election, the time to put in money is right now,” he said.

Capital-Star Washington Reporter Jennifer Shutt contributed to this story

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Kira Lerner
Kira Lerner

Kira was the democracy reporter for States Newsroom where she covered voting, elections, redistricting, and efforts to subvert democracy.