Election Funding Weighed by Senate Panel as Virus Raises Concern

Senate Republicans are considering granting additional money to conduct the November elections as state and local officials plead for more help to meet the challenges posed by the pandemic.

The issue of whether to boost funding above the $400 million already allotted by Congress is set to be discussed at a hearing Wednesday by the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

“State and local election officials face a unique set of challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said in a statement announcing the hearing. “We need to be sure they have the resources and, importantly, the flexibility to address those challenges in ways that best fit their needs.”

Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is convening a hearing that will discuss the need for more election funding.

Election officials could use more federal money to pay for postage, paper and printing of mail-in absentee ballots expected to be used extensively in the election, according to Ben Hovland, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

If more money is approved, “we can get it out quickly,” said Hovland, whose agency is in charge of distributing election grants. “I am hopeful” Congress will act to provide election money in the next bill dealing with coronavirus relief, he said.

Hovland spoke in a phone interview after a commission hearing earlier this month in which state and local officials from both parties said they need more money to deal with election changes forced by the pandemic, including increasing voting by mail while still maintaining in-person polling sites.

Those states that haven’t already purchased automated mail sorting systems to tally paper ballots will have to hire temporary workers and rent warehouses to count ballots, Hovland said. And how the counting process goes will directly affect how long it takes to get election results.

New Pandemic Package

The Senate hearing is taking place as leaders are negotiating a new coronavirus relief package that Congress plans to consider before taking an August recess.

Blunt’s openness to additional funding comes despite President Donald Trump’s frequent comments that more voting by mail would lead to fraud and hurt Republicans. He repeated the charge, without evidence, in a recent Fox News interview.

Blunt has opposed efforts by Democrats, led by Rules Committee ranking member Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), to impose federal requirements that states expand opportunities for voting by mail and early voting to prevent spreading the virus at in-person polling places.

Klobuchar also has called for waiving any matching requirements for grants to help with election costs, a point supported by Hovland. He said a 20% matching requirement for the last round of $400 million in election grants in the CARES Act (Public Law 116-136) slowed the process of getting money out to states.

The Rules Committee is set to hear from Republican election officials from Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia, as well as from Kristen Clarke, president of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The Lawyers’ Committee has been monitoring problems caused by the pandemic in recent primary elections, including long lines to vote due to fewer polling places and problems with the delivery and return of mail-in absentee ballots.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com

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