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States say they cannot access emergency COVID-19 election funding because of steep match rates

May 5, 2020, 10:30 AM UTC

In late March as part of the stimulus package known as the CARES Act, Congress gave states $400 million to protect the upcoming presidential and federal elections from any COVID-19 related disruptions. Now, some states are saying that they have no way to access that money.

In order for a state to receive its part of the $400 million—doled out by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and expected to be put toward expenses like mail-in ballots and personal protective equipment for poll workers—it has to commit to matching 20% of the money with its own funds. Companies that received stimulus money from the bill had no similar match requirements. 

“To have a 20% match at a time when state revenues are plummeting across this country makes some states not able to utilize that money that Congress is providing specifically for a COVID response,” said Vermont secretary of state Jim Condos on a press call. 

Ricky Hatch, a representative for the National Association of Counties and clerk auditor in Weber County, Utah, explained on a press call to Fortune that his state will probably only claim about 50% of the funds made available to it because of the matching requirement. “The governor’s office came to us and said, ‘We just don’t think we can ask the legislature for that 20% match,’” he said. 

In the past, states have been asked to contribute money to receive election funds, but at a 5% rate, according to Democratic Minnesota secretary of state Steve Simon. He’s unsure of why this particular match rate is so high, especially when the funds are so vital to ensuring a successful presidential election. Minnesota needs approval from its legislature in order to match funding, and with just two weeks before its members retire for the year, getting to any kind of agreement looks precarious. 

Still, Simon says, his state is lucky because the legislature is still in session. About 15 state legislatures have already adjourned for the year, which means that unless they call a special session to order, they won’t reconvene until early in 2021. In order to receive the funding, a match must be guaranteed by Dec. 31, 2020.

“We hope that in the final weeks of the legislative session that we will get access to that money, but right now we don’t know if we will,” he said. “In the House, we have put together a bipartisan package, and the Senate has come up with its own packages that include some language that is very difficult for us to accept. So a lot of things are going to happen in the next week that are going to be really intense.”

Former Republican Minnesota secretary of state and current Senate president pro tempore Mary Kiffmeyer said that she is happy to fund the election but that there are a few “sticky issues to be dealt with yet,” which, she hoped, would be hammered out before next week. The 20% match, she said, seems very fair. “You’re getting 80%. That’s a deal I’ll take anytime any day.”

One disagreement between the parties centers around the reliance on vote-by-mail and the United States Postal Service, which President Donald Trump has spoken out against on a national stage.

“There were 135,000 ballots that were found in the post office that went undelivered and uncounted in Wisconsin, and there are several issues with the post office right now. The mail has been so dropped down, so we don’t want to put all of our eggs in the post office basket,” Kiffmeyer said.

About 9,000 vote-by-mail ballot requests were never fulfilled in Wisconsin’s primary election, according to investigators, and many ballots were postmarked too late to count. The USPS said in a statement that they were aware of “potential issues” with ballot delivery.

“It is important to note that throughout every election cycle, the U.S. Postal Service works with state and local election officials to ensure the timely delivery of election mail,” the USPS wrote. “The United States mail system serves as a secure, efficient, and effective means for citizens and campaigns to participate in the electoral process, and the Postal Service is committed to delivering election mail in a timely manner.”

There are fears that without congressional intervention, the Postal Service will not have the budget to operate by the end of this summer.

Most states do not require legislative approval to accept the funds. Washington secretary of state Kim Wyman says that her state was lucky in that she was able to work with Gov. Jay Inslee directly to guarantee the funding, but that she is “absolutely concerned” and consulting with senators and representatives about how to retroactively change the 20% match regulation.

“It’s a state-by-state problem, but I think it’s significant,” she said, adding that she’d been speaking to her colleagues in Nevada who called the situation “onerous.”

“While we greatly appreciate the money Congress made available to election officials through the CARES Act, the 20% match requirement is at odds with the emergency nature of the grant funds,” explained Jennifer A. Russell, spokesperson for Nevada secretary of state Barbara K. Cegavske. “Emergency funding should not come with match requirements, especially considering the fact states are going to have an extremely difficult time meeting the match at a time when state budgets are decimated.”

States are now asking for the removal of matching funding in any new monetary allocations and a retroactive end to the previous 20% match requirement. Simon said that he understands that there are “a lot of worthy causes” competing for stimulus money, but “waving the 20% match doesn’t cost the federal government anything.”

Minnesota has been granted $6.9 million in additional election funding, and the state is being asked to give another $1.4 million in matching funds. Simon said he’s willing to forgo that extra money, “but don’t make us ask our already stressed and strapped state government for more money just to unlock this federal grant.” 

Congress acknowledged the need in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act, which expedited $400 million in new funds for the Help America Vote Act to be used by states specifically in dealing with the threat of COVID-19 to 2020 federal elections. But $400 million among all states, say election officials, is not nearly enough. 

In just six months, states will be legally required to oversee an incredibly consequential election in the midst of a global pandemic. Election officials were already attempting to contend with security threats, old machines, and untested technology (see: Iowa), and now an unprecedented public health disaster sits atop these threats to the democratic process. To pull off a smooth and successful vote this November will take a miracle, they say. But if they do find themselves short on divine intervention, exorbitant amounts of elbow grease and money might also do the trick. 

“It’s a helpful down payment but not the full amount that we and others will need in order to conduct an election during a pandemic,” said Simon. 

A new report conducted by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice found that in five states—Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Missouri—the current funding will amount to an average of just 20% of required costs for necessary election changes. The report found that states, already facing impending budget crises because of the pandemic, will have to shoulder about 90% of increased costs to hold successful elections this fall. 

Without the funding, Simon said, voters could face a “double disaster” and a “doomsday scenario” where they have to risk their health and potentially expose themselves to the coronavirus in order to vote. 

Perhaps the virus won’t be as bad in November, or maybe there will be a vaccine, speculated Simon—but those are just guesses. “If we guess wrong we’re all in deep, deep trouble,” he said. 

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