It’s not the first, or second, or even sixth issue that comes up in most discussions of the deadlocked coronavirus stimulus negotiations. But federal assistance to state and local officials struggling with the difficulties of holding a general election during a pandemic is in the mix, and its enactment or abandonment could have a major impact on the chaos so many observers fear will transpire in November.
In the context of the trillions of dollars Congress has already appropriated for coronavirus relief and stimulus, election assistance involves sofa-cushion money. House Democrats have sought to secure the funds identified by the Brennan Center for Justice as necessary for “COVID-19 Election Resiliency Measures,” from facilitating voting by mail and curbside voting to polling-place and poll-worker safety, to the task of registering new voters (which has to take place in person in some states). Its original estimate of $2 billion was adopted by congressional Democrats in the negotiations leading to the CARES Act, though they only wrung $400 million from Republicans hostile to the use of federal funds to expand voting by mail. Brennan’s revised estimate of $4 billion for “election resiliency” is now the basis for the $3.6 billion election assistance ($4 billion minus the $400 million provided in CARES) proposed in House Democrats’ HEROES Act, passed in May and the baseline for both House and Senate Democratic negotiators today.
The White House/GOP HEALS proposal, unveiled in late July, has no money for election assistance, though that difference has been dwarfed by the larger gap between the parties on general fiscal assistance to state and local governments (nearly a trillion dollars in HEROES, and no new money in HEALS beyond whatever unspent money left over from CARES can be repurposed). Democrats have dropped earlier efforts to mandate expanded voting by mail in exchange for election assistance, a key sticking point with Republicans.
Now that Trump has announced a workaround for the most time-sensitive issues created by the expiration of CARES — a highly dubious workaround, but at least a gesture — the perceived pressure on Republicans to cut a deal with Democrats (who are taking a very hard line on concessions) has dropped, and odds that nothing will happen at all, or for a good while at least, have accordingly increased.
So state and local election officials cannot afford to count on any help at all from the Feds between now and November, and that’s causing serious alarm, as the Associated Press reports:
Congress’ failure so far to pass another round of coronavirus aid leaves state and local officials on their own to deal with the soaring costs of holding a presidential election amid a deadly pandemic …
Experts point to the rocky execution of the primaries since the pandemic began, in which there were numerous reports of absentee ballots failing to arrive or rejected for being late. Primaries were marred by hours-long lines in Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Las Vegas as polling places were consolidated.
“Without proper funding, guidance, and preparedness, the problems seen in previous elections are going to be just the tip of the iceberg this November,” Sylvia Albert, voting and elections director with Common Cause, warned lawmakers during a congressional hearing last week.
Earlier expectations that the pandemic might have run its course by the end of the summer are looking wildly over-optimistic now. Yet the intensity of the presidential contest in a hyper-polarized electorate is such that very high turnout is likely — if, that is, election systems don’t break from the strain, with millions of voters not receiving mail ballots in time to return them via a slowed-down postal service, and in-person voting on and shortly before Election Day slowing to a crawl at a sharply reduced number of polling places.
The central political question now is whether shoddy election infrastructure has become part of a Trump/GOP plan to win the election via reduced or skewed turnout patterns. In an overview of Republican voter suppression techniques, Perry Bacon Jr. mentions five: opposing legal changes to make voting by mail easier; reversing temporary rules adopted during the primaries to make voting by mail easier; targeted disenfranchisement efforts (e.g., restrictions on early in-person voting; not allowing students to vote where they live; the Florida GOP’s efforts to re-disenfranchise ex-felons); rhetoric designed to undermine confidence in the electoral system; and sinister structural gambits like slowing down mail service. All true and all important, but a sixth — an overwhelmed infrastructure for casting and counting ballots — is perhaps the most tempting to the GOP. It’s also the easiest, since all they have to do is to refuse to help as election officials slowly sink under the tide of COVID-19-related problems.