vision 2020

State and Local Budget Shortfalls Adding to Potential Election Chaos

If you thought voting in the primaries was difficult, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images

2020 is turning out to be the Year From Hell for election administration. The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the infrastructure of balloting, from inadequate opportunities for voter registration to poll workers terrified to do their jobs to complicated and expensive measures to make in-person voting safe. The understandable desire of voters almost everywhere to vote remotely by mail has overwhelmed election administrators in states where in-person voting has been a custom or a legal requirement. And the decision by one of the two major parties to discourage voting by mail and make lower turnout a partisan goal has led to endless jockeying over election procedures in state and local governments compounded by a huge wave of litigation, as Elise Viebeck recently reported:

Legal battles in about two dozen states are now poised to shape the details of how roughly 130 million registered voters are able to cast ballots in upcoming contests, with more than 60 lawsuits related to absentee voting and other rules wending their way through the courts, according to a tally by The Washington Post

Across the country, conflicting court decisions could exacerbate the differences in voters’ experiences at the ballot box in November. And as the fights play out, the uncertainty is further complicating election officials’ ability to prepare for the vote.

Scenarios are beginning to appear depicting insanely long voting lines, ballot-counting that will last for weeks, post-election violence in the streets over partial results, and a constitutional crisis affecting the presidency.

The situation is dire enough, but it could be made significantly worse by state and local government budget cuts that are giving already overwhelmed election officials new headaches, as Reuters reports:

A Michigan town wants machines to speed up counting of absentee ballots. In Ohio, officials want to equip polling places so voters and poll workers feel safe from the coronavirus. Georgia officials, rattled by a chaotic election last month, want to send voters forms so they can request absentee ballots more easily. In all three cases, the money is not there to make it happen, say local officials responsible for running elections in the states — any one of which could determine who wins the Nov. 3 presidential election …

[I]nstead of receiving more money for the all-important contest between Republican President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, officials face budget cuts after tax revenues plunged in the virus-stricken economy, two dozen election officials across several battleground states told Reuters.

Yes, Congress did authorize $400 million in election assistance in the CARES Act in March (one-tenth of the amount the Brennan Center for Justice estimated would be needed for competent election administration in a pandemic), but the money is still trickling down, and more importantly, is far too little to meet increasingly dire needs while offsetting budget cuts:

In Philadelphia, falling revenues have left an election budget of $12.3 million, instead of $22.5 million that officials proposed in early March. The city’s vote could be critical: Pennsylvania is a state where Trump won by less than a percentage point, and about a fifth of its registered Democrats live in Philadelphia.

The city expects about $750,000 in CARES Act grant money, but it already spent more than its expected grant holding its June 2 primary, its top election official, Commissioner Lisa Deeley, told Reuters.

The other new reality, of course, is that hopes COVID-19 would have been vanquished by November have largely vanished. All the problems faced by states during the primaries will be exacerbated by higher turnout — not to mention heightened partisan tensions — in November.

As the Reuters report highlights, there are a host of problems that can only be solved with more money, like additional safety equipment for polling stations, or staffing to replace elderly poll workers who don’t want to risk potential exposure to the coronavirus. Most urgently, states need help expediting mail-ballot processing so that voters who haven’t received their ballots don’t unexpectedly crowd Election Day polling places, as they often did in the primaries. The extremely slow count everyone expects and fears could be ameliorated if states have the wherewithal to immediately count mail ballots received before Election Day. And most of all, money is the answer to the patchwork of resources that typically shortchange poor and minority voters (particularly in states with Republican election administrators who don’t mind if voters likely to lean Democratic get fed up and go home or to work).

Unfortunately, prospects for more election assistance from Congress this year — or alternatively, for the general-purpose aid to state and local government that would relieve budget pressure on election administrators — are not great. Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration seem inclined to set an arbitrary limit on additional coronavirus relief and stimulus legislation that will pit individual stimulus checks, supplemental unemployment insurance, additional help for small businesses, and public-health expenditures against each other and against state and local assistance. It’s also hard to avoid the suspicion that the president is inviting election chaos as part of a strategy to contest a close election defeat.

Still, wherever possible, advocates of fair elections need to fight for making this particular high-stakes election a fiscal priority in Washington and in state capitals. Right now we are on a trajectory to make the post-election crisis of 2000 look tame in comparison.

State and Local Budget Shortfalls May Add to Election Chaos