Ever since the coronavirus pandemic hit, congressional Democrats, voting rights advocates, and many states and localities have been trying to secure some federal help in preparing for a November election that may be seriously affected by coronavirus fears. In the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill passed last month, congressional Republican rejected Democratic requests for something approximating the $2 billion experts said election officials needed to retrofit the machinery and procedures for a mid- or post-pandemic vote. They also rejected linking the new money to any requirement that states or localities make voting by mail a practical option for all voters, on grounds that the feds had no role in telling states what to do.
In the end, then, the package included $400 million in no-strings money–or so it seemed at the time. Now it has transpired that in the fine print of the stimulus bill the election assistance aid came with a particularly onerous “string” given the increasingly catastrophic condition of state balance sheets: a 20 percent “match” requirement. It could be a deal-breaker in many places, as the Washington Post reports:
State officials are pushing Congress to reverse restrictions they say are too burdensome on $400 million aimed at protecting elections during the coronavirus pandemic.
Congress approved that payout last month as part of a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill but also required states match 20 percent of it out of their own budgets. Coming up with that money would be tough for some states in normal times and may be simply impossible with every spare dollar going to pandemic response and economic recovery, the officials say.
“State revenues are plummeting across the country and this means some states will not be able to utilize that money,” Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos (D) said during a call with reporters.
Even if it were a good idea, meeting a match requirement may be logistically impossible in some states where legislatures not in session must appropriate the dollars. But it’s not really a good idea.
Often when Congress sets up a new federal-state grant program, it will require a “match” to make sure the recipients have some skin in the game, and don’t simply spend the money for the sake of spending it. In this case, the states have their entire hides in the game from the get-go, as the level of government typically in charge of election administration. In an emergency spending bill designed with relatively little concern for fiscal restraint, a match requirement may simply thwart the very purpose of making the money available in the first place–which could be the whole idea, unfortunately.
[State] officials are also bristling because the relief bill included far larger cash packages for industries including airlines and agriculture with far fewer strings attached.
“I don’t see a 20 percent match for the business community, so I’m not sure why all the sudden we have to have a 20 percent match,” said Condos, who was formerly president of the National Association of Secretaries of State and serves on its executive board.
Congressional Democrats with some Republican support are hoping to get the election assistance match requirement dropped in the next stimulus legislation. But time for gearing up for November is a-wasting, and soon states will be forced to go with what they’ve got–which may not be enough for a fair and competently administered election.