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Holding Elections in a Pandemic Environment

There are multiple issues that threaten our election systems in counties nationwide.

From a Washington Post newsletter:

State and local officials are facing a mountain of new costs as they prepare to hold elections during the coronavirus pandemic — and money provided by Congress so far doesn’t come close to covering it. Lawmakers approved $400 million for elections in last month’s coronavirus stimulus bill. But running elections safely and securely through November will cost at least $414 million in just five states — Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, according to a new analysis from election security experts.

In each of those states, the federal money covers less than 20 percent of what’s needed and often closer to 10 percent, according to the report from the Alliance for Securing Democracy, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, the R Street Institute and the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security.

States are facing severe funding shortfalls during the pandemic and are unlikely to be able to make up the difference.

“What Congress has provided to our election officials to run elections in a pandemic does not come close to what's needed,” Elizabeth Howard, counsel in the Brennan Center’s democracy program and a former deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Elections, said during a call with reporters.

The report underscores the fact the pandemic probably will upend every aspect of the November election in ways that move far beyond an increase in voting by mail. The analysis for each state includes more than two dozen items ranging from protective equipment for poll workers to single-use pens for voters filling out paper ballots. The lists also include funding for remote election preparation and to boost the security and reliability of online tools for voter registration, absentee ballots requests and ballot tracking similar to a UPS delivery.

The estimates presume a dramatic expansion in voting by mail by people who don’t want to risk going to the polls. They also include extra protections for in-person voting and public education campaigns so voters know about changes well in advance. The goal is to avoid what happened in Wisconsin, where lawmakers pushed forward with the state’s primary despite public health concerns and with little preparation. The result was a chaotic primary day with blocks-long lines of voters social distancing from each other. About 50 new coronavirus infections have been linked to the election.

“Nobody should be facing the choice of their health or exercising the franchise in the coming election. That means we need to prepare now for providing all Americans an opportunity to cast their ballot in new and novel ways,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a former top Department of Homeland Security official who is now a resident senior fellow at the R Street Institute.

The new funds will be a tough sell in Congress, though.

Democrats have pushed for more than $3 billion in additional election money in any new stimulus bill, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has shown no interest in providing additional funding.

Democrats also favor attaching requirements to the funding, such as that states allow all residents to vote by mail and expand early voting days. But those plans are opposed by most Republican lawmakers and many state officials who say they interfere with states’ authority to run elections and could be overly burdensome.

Even the $400 million Congress already approved came with a requirement that states match 20 percent of that money, which many of them will struggle to do.

Utah, for example, will probably be able to collect only about half of the election money Congress gave it because that’s all the state can afford to match, Ricky Hatch, the county clerk and top election official for Weber County, Utah, said during the call.

The report also shows the immense planning and preparation county election officials will have to undertake amid incredibly challenging circumstances.

Rochester Hills, Mich., City Clerk Tina Barton ticked off a bevy of new costs she’s facing. They include:
• Printing for absentee ballots, ballot request forms and privacy envelopes for up to 50,000 of the city’s 55,000 registered voters
• New high-speed scanners, tabulators and letter openers to process completed ballots
• Extra secure boxes where residents can drop off absentee ballots if they don’t want to send them through the mail
• Ultraviolet lights to kill any traces of the virus on mailed-in ballots
• Extra secure storage for tens of thousands of ballots that arrive before Election Day
• A bevy of disinfectants to keep in-person polling sites clean plus hand sanitizer for voters and poll workers

Barton is also facing a series of logistical hurdles. She’ll have to find new poll workers because the ones she usually relies on are over 70 years old on average and at higher risk for the virus. She’ll also probably have to pay those workers a premium to get enough people to risk their health to take the job. And she’ll have to figure out how to train them using distance learning or in some other way allowing them to remain socially distant.

She’ll also have to figure out new polling locations to replace ones that were in retirement homes and schools, and design systems so people can enter them and still remain six feet or more apart.

Finally, she’ll have to spend months trying to educate voters about all of the changes so they’re not caught unaware.

“As election officials, we are resolved to carrying on with our mission of providing free, fair and accessible elections across this great country,” she said.

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.