States Face Obstacles Tapping Federal Election Grants for Virus

State election officials and key congressional lawmakers are discussing how to ease states’ ability to tap $400 million in new federal grants intended to help hold elections amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The money was intended to help states move toward voting by mail, early voting and other measures to avoid spreading the virus at polling sites.

But states are having trouble accessing the grants because of their matching fund requirements and other conditions, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State, the main group representing election officials.

“As Congressional discussions continue, we look forward to working together to address the issues,” being confronted by states, NASS spokeswoman Maria Benson said in an email Tuesday.

Lawmakers from both parties said they would cooperate to address the states’ concerns.

“We must appropriate sufficient funding for state and local election officials to carry out orderly and safe elections,” House Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said in a statement Tuesday.

Lofgren added that funding “must be free of poorly-conceived and burdensome matching or reporting requirements so that States can quickly access and deploy funding where it is most needed.” And she noted that tens of thousands of voters in Wisconsin didn’t receive absentee ballots in time to participate in Tuesday’s election there.

Rep. Rodney Davis(R-Ill.), the top Republican on the committee, sent a letter to Lofgren on Monday asking that they “work together to address the concerns” of state election officials while refraining from “a federalized approach that will hinder states from successfully executing our elections.”

(Photo by Thomas Werner/Bloomberg)
Campaign Signs are displayed outside a home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where voting proceeded Tuesday despite objections from the Democratic governor.

The new federal grants are set to be released soon to states, according to a statement from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The commission said it would provide states with guidance about accessing the federal money, “including implementing the match requirement,” but gave no other details.

State Money Scarce

NASS’ president, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (R), sent an April 2 letter to key House and Senate lawmakers asking for help in accessing the federal money. Pate said states are grateful for financial support during the national emergency but “have significant challenges when it comes to accessing these federal funds.”

Pate sought “clarification” about the matching funds requirement, as well as fixes for other problems. Coming up with matching funds will be “extremely difficult” because many state legislatures have already adjourned for the year and can’t approve any new spending before the availability of federal funds is set to expire, he said. In addition, state legislatures across the country are “dealing with depleted surpluses, lower tax revenues, increased healthcare costs and other financial challenges in response to the pandemic.”

Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been at odds over how far the election relief should go.

Democrats Want More Money for Mail-In Ballots Due to Virus Fears

Senate Republicans initially supported $140 million in federal funding to help with in the most recent coronavirus relief measure (Public Law 116-136), enacted March 27. House Democrats had pushed for as much a $4 billion in federal funding, along with extensive requirements to allow voting by mail and changes in other state rules.

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; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com

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