States would get $400 million to run elections under COVID-19 threat

absentee ballot application (Linda Parton.Shutterstock.com) 

The $2 trillion economic relief package passed by the Senate March 25 would set aside $400 million for states and localities to restructure their election processes to deal with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, but some lawmakers and election security experts say the sum is paltry compared to what is needed.

The Election Assistance Commission is charged with distributing grants on a per capita basis within 30 days of passage. The bill does require that each state provide a report to EAC at least 20 days out from their election, detailing how they spent their share and how it allowed them "to prevent, prepare for and respond to the coronavirus."

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, which examines election security and integrity issues, calculated that states need more funding to expand vote-by-mail infrastructure.

That estimate includes approximately half a billion dollars to pay for postage for sending and receiving mail-in ballots, as much as $117 million for drop boxes to securely hold drop-off ballots, $16.7 million for secure technology that allows voters to request ballots online or by phone, $4.2 million for ballot tracking software, $85.9 million to bolster existing state online voter registration systems and an additional $82.3 million to test those systems for capacity and security vulnerabilities.

Michael Waldman, the Center's president, estimated state and local officials would need $2 billion to prepare. "That funding is not partisan and it is not a luxury," Waldman said. "Time remains of the essence."

The funding in the Senate package was "not all that we need by any way, but it is a first step"  Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said.

Klobuchar and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced legislation earlier this month that would expand no-excuse absentee voting by mail for every state, guarantee online and in-person registration up to 21 days before an election, direct the EAC to create a uniform, downloadable and printable absentee ballot, charge the General Services Administration and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency with creating a new domestic ballot update service and reimburse states for the costs of developing or purchasing secure remote ballot marking.

Wyden said he was "troubled" by the lack of minimum security standards for states in the relief package and vowed to "be very vigilant in terms of making sure the money … to the maximum extent possible, is spent on those kind of approaches that independent computer science experts say are really going to pay off." Wyden warned of the prospect of "app snake oil" coming from vendors.

Wyden and Klobuchar's bill has 28 cosponsors in the Senate, all Democrats. Klobuchar said they planned to work with House leadership -- where Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) competing bill called for $4 billion in state election grants -- to try to secure additional funding in future bills in the next two or three months. They said they their goal is "not reinventing the wheel" but scaling up current tools that states already have to help people vote without physically heading to the polls.

"This is not like buying an entirely new election system. What this is is taking [states'] existing laws … getting more ballots out by mail, getting more envelopes out, getting more postage out and upping their system that they have now," said Klobuchar.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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