WASHINGTON — A few weeks ago, more than 2,000 election officials from across the country participated in a virtual-training program known as a table-top exercise. Organized by the Department of Homeland Security, the training brought home the many obstacles facing state and local election officials in this pandemic year.
Election officials discussed how to expand access to the ballot box — by mail or in-person — and keep people safe during a public-health crisis. They brushed up on the latest cybersecurity threats and how to protect themselves against such attacks. They were also told by federal officials to prepare for physical threats around election time. During one training session, local officials were advised to consider taking classes to identify improvised explosive devices, according to a local election official who attended the training. (A DHS spokeswoman says physical-security scenarios “have always been a part” of the department’s table-top exercises and “are not tied to any specific, credible, imminent threat and should not be viewed as likely or expected to occur.” The spokeswoman added that these scenarios “are developed based on input from election officials and oftentimes address ‘worst case’ instances in order to foster discussion and raise ideas we may not yet be thinking about.”)
In this unprecedented election year, the challenges facing the on-the-ground civil servants doing the nitty-gritty work of running our elections have never been greater. Rolling Stone recently interviewed nearly a dozen election chiefs — Democrats and Republicans — at the local and state level, and there was one common refrain: Additional funding is needed as part of the Phase 4 Covid-19 relief bill being negotiated in Congress to ensure that everyone can vote safely and that every vote is counted.
“We are running multiple types of elections this time,” says Tonya Wichman, the director of the Board of Elections in Defiance County, Ohio.
“Normally, we can plan from years past on how many will vote by mail and how many will vote in person,” Wichman, a Republican, tells Rolling Stone. “Now, we have to plan for everything.”
Even in non-pandemic times, election administrators have struggled to secure the funds they say they need, forcing them to do more with less. But after the Covid-19 crisis crippled the U.S. economy, slashing tax revenues and hammering state budgets, cities, counties, and states face a funding crisis of unimaginable proportions. “My usual election-cycle comment is that we’re trying to find enough duct tape to cover the holes in the bucket,” Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School and voting-rights expert, told Rolling Stone last month. “This time, we’re trying to make the bucket out of duct tape.”
The CARES Act, a bipartisan coronavirus relief bill signed by President Trump in March, allocated $400 million in emergency election funding. But many local officials say they’ve spent much of their CARES Act money on primaries and special elections, and that new funds are desperately needed for the fall general election. A recent op-ed in Politico by four Republican election chiefs described the CARES Act money as “a down payment on what we need” to safely and securely run this fall’s elections. Voting-rights experts argue that close to $4 billion would cover the needs of election administrators nationwide — a massive amount of money on its own, but a paltry sum in the context of both House Democrats’ $3 trillion Phase 4 Covid-19 relief proposal and Senate Republicans’ $1 trillion counteroffer.
Outside of Washington, there is little partisan disagreement about the need for additional funding for this year’s elections. The main obstacle, then, isn’t the Republican Party writ large. It’s congressional Republicans — and Trump.
“The act of voting in America is not political,” Vanita Gupta, the president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, tells Rolling Stone. “This is money that would go to Republican and Democratic secretaries of states. We have a president who is trying to politicize [voting] at every turn, but the reality is, outside of Washington, this is an operational issue, not a partisan one.”
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says the earlier CARES Act money was “critical” for her state, paying for a statewide mailer that helped voters vote by mail, personal protective equipment for election workers, drop boxes that made it easier to voters to submit their mail-in ballots, and other election-related equipment at the local level.
But Benson, a Democrat, says the state needs an estimated $15 million more in Michigan to cover new costs such as return postage on absentee ballots (money, it’s worth noting, that would go back to the U.S. Postal Service’s coffers). “The foundation of our country is the ability to safely elect and hold accountable our leaders,” Benson says. “In my view, it should be a priority of our government to ensure our elections remain safe and secure and accessible.”
Neal Kelley, the registrar of voters in Orange County, California, tells Rolling Stone that he’s spent the past few years investing in the technology and manpower to expand mail-in voting in his county. (At nearly 1.7 million voters, Orange County is the fifth-largest voting jurisdiction in the country.) Kelley, a Republican, says he could run an entirely mail-in election if he needed to, but the state government has insisted that in-person voting remains an option.
“The thing I’m grappling with the most is the in-person component,” he says. “How do we keep people safe in an in-person environment?”
Kelley rattles off all the new supplies and equipment he’s purchased to prepare for November: new barriers to ensure social distancing in county polling places, hundreds of thousands of gloves and face coverings and disposable pens, new signage in multiple languages. He’s had to train his own staff on how to disinfect facilities for safe in-person voting while redesigning the layouts of county vote centers to comply with physical-distancing guidelines.
“For a county of our size, it all adds up,” Kelley says.
Inyo County, a 10,000-square-mile expanse of rural California located along the Nevada border, couldn’t be more different than Orange County. Yet for Kammi Foote, the county’s clerk-recorder and registrar of voters, the obstacles to running a safe and secure election are just as many.
With only a few full-time employees to support her, Foote is close to a one-woman operation when it comes to elections. She says she’s spent the past several years getting up to speed on foreign interference and cybersecurity threats, including spear-phishing and ransomware. Now, she’s in the middle of a crash course on public health and pandemics. “I’ve never thought about how I can run an election in a pandemic before 2020,” she says. “Now I’m learning about virology and vector spread. I’m consulting with public-health experts.”
Foote, who was infected by Covid-19 earlier this year, says she’s taking every precaution she can to keep her staff, the volunteers she relies on, and the voters safe. At the same time, she is educating her constituents about voting by mail and at times correcting misperceptions about voting that constituents see on national TV or social media.
“I am getting a lot of questions from voters who are questioning processes [with voting by mail] that don’t even happen here because they heard about it on the news,” she says. “But in California, we check every signature and every address, you don’t have to pay postage, and you can track your ballot through the process.”
Inyo County, which includes Death Valley National Park (the lowest elevation point in the U.S.) and Mount Whitney (the highest elevation point in the continental U.S.), is a popular tourist destination. But as travel has ground to crawl, so too has the flow of tax revenue into the local government.
“With shrinking county and city budgets due to massive losses in tax and fee revenue, the extra cost of purchasing, deploying, and training proper use of PPE for in-person voting, the increase in voting-by-mail volume, rising ransomware occurrences, cybersecurity issues, and now civil unrest, we definitely need more funding for elections,” she says. “I am really worried how the nation is going to be able to pull this off successfully.”
Rick Stream, the director of elections in Missouri’s St. Louis County and a Republican, echoed this concern in testimony before the U.S. Senate Rules Committee last month. “While our expenses are going up and are unpredictable for the remainder of the year based on the trajectory of the pandemic, income and sales tax resources coming into the state and county have plummeted,” he said. “Additional federal help might be necessary to meet these demands.”
A Republican talking point used to argue against additional election funding is that such funds would “federalize” the country’s decentralized election system, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently put it.
Democratic and Republican election officials say they would share McConnell’s concerns if new federal funds came with onerous requirements about how to spend those dollars. But the election officials say that wasn’t the case with the CARES Act back in March, and they have no reason to believe it will be the case with the Phase 4 Covid-19 relief bill. (A spokesman for McConnell did not respond to a request for comment.)
Tonya Wichman, the Defiance County board of elections director, says Ohio’s secretary of state, which has distributed the federal money she’s received so far, serves as a buffer between her office and the federal government. “The only question we’ve had with federal funding is if you have to spend it on certain things,” she says. “I don’t think they’re taking over elections as long as they’re going through the state level to get it to us.”
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says there’s “no truth” to the claim that additional federal funding will lead to a takeover of locally run elections. Benson points to the decades-long partnerships between the states and Washington on improving cybersecurity protections or on major legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Help America Vote Act of 2002, and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. Even then, Benson says, “it’s not like they’re force-feeding states federal funding. If there are states that don’t want it or need it, they can decline it.”
Kammi Foote, Inyo County’s clerk-recorder and elections chief, says the paramount concern for any election official is administering an election so that every voter trusts their vote was counted and that the final result was legitimate. In this extraordinary moment, she says, civil servants like her need all the funding and assistance they can get.
“[Election officials] have this saying: You can have speed, accuracy, and cheap,” she says. “Pick two, because you can’t have all three.”