WASHINGTON (CN) — With the 2020 election looming and the coronavirus pandemic continuing to rage across the country, senators and state election officials debated the need Wednesday for more federal dollars to help states conduct voting safely.
“We all know that the counties and the states are suffering badly, so I think that it would be a correct statement to say that they need additional financial help,” Rick Stream, the Republican director of elections in St. Louis County, Mo., told the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.
The coronavirus pandemic coincided with primaries in many states, sending elections officials scrambling for ways to conduct voting safely. Many states turned to vote by mail, but long wait times were still common at overwhelmed in-person polling places.
Changes to voting procedures have spawned waves of lawsuits and bitter partisan fights. Republicans have raised concerns about the security of mail-in ballots, most vocally President Donald Trump, who has claimed without evidence that mail-in ballots lead to voter fraud.
Democrats and voting rights groups, meanwhile, have said not having widespread vote-by-mail during the pandemic will threaten the right to vote, particularly for minority and lower-income voters who could face long lines and risk having to choose between being exposed to coronavirus and casting a ballot.
As part of the massive coronavirus response package that became law at the end of March, Congress set aside $400 million in grants for states to use in the 2020 election cycle. Lawmakers are now working out the details of another relief package, leading to renewed calls for another round of election support funding for states.
But exactly what that funding will look like remains unclear.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Democrats called for $3.6 billion in aid to states, mirroring a fund included as part of a House-passed coronavirus relief bill that has languished in the Senate.
“I would rather be putting ballots in a mailbox than people in the hospital,” Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said. “That’s a choice we have for so many voters and that’s why you see overwhelming support for getting funding and something I believe that we can get done on a bipartisan basis.”
Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the National Layers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told the committee a successful election during the pandemic will require states to provide no excuse absentee voting and expanded early voting, as well as safe options for people to vote in-person.
She said people of color and older voters would be particularly harmed without those policies in place and called on Congress to make them mandatory as part of relief legislation.
“Nothing less than the fate of our democracy and the lives of your constituents is at stake,” Clarke said.
Representative Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who chairs the committee and is a member of party leadership in the Senate, suggested a more limited federal approach, including possibly requiring states to match a portion of federal relief funds. Under the first round of $400 million in funding, states must match 20% of the money they receive from the federal government.
“I actually think there’s some merit in the decision-making process to having some match, but I don’t think it has to be a very big match to meet my sense that you’ve had to think about some money that you had to explain to the state legislature and others that you thought was worth putting on the table to get that 95% of the money that came from the federal government,” Blunt said.
Blunt also said Congress should look at ways to give states more freedom in spending money they already received but that came with restrictions.
The state election officials who testified Wednesday all said Congress may need to provide more money for election administration as some states face budget crunches from falling sales and income tax revenue due to the pandemic.
“I really do believe there’s something to be said for having some skin in the game, but also recognize we are in a very challenging time and different states have been hit differently,” Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett said when asked about the matching requirement. “I know you’ve all got difficult decisions to make. I want to make sure that whatever we do, we don’t place strings associated with any funds that come from you going forward.”
Hargett was adamant, however, that Congress should not require states to make changes to their election procedures as a condition of receiving federal funding.
The officials said state government are spending significant time and money to stand up vote-by-mail systems, hire new poll workers and buy personal protective equipment for election employees. Hargett said Tennessee has particularly tried to recruit 16 and 17-year-olds to work at polling places because many of their current poll workers are over the age of 65 and considered at high risk of Covid-19.