The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Election experts sound alarms as costs escalate and funding dwindles

Congress and private donors spent nearly $1 billion to help administer the 2020 election. They may stay on the sidelines in 2022.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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When a global pandemic threatened to throw the 2020 presidential election into chaos, hundreds of millions of dollars flowed to state and local election agencies to ensure they had the resources to conduct a fair and accessible election, ultimately allowing administrators to manage record turnout with relatively few hiccups.

Two years later, that money is gone and while the pandemic has ebbed it has not disappeared, and new challenges have arisen, including rising security threats, supply-chain disruptions and escalating costs for basic materials such as paper ballots, which have gone up by as much as 50 percent around the country, according to some estimates.

Election officials and voting experts are now warning as the midterm elections get underway that new funding is needed to avoid significant problems in November.

“The scale of the need is in literally the tens of billions of dollars,” said Tiana Epps-Johnson, executive director of the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that distributed more than $300 million in grants to election agencies in 2020, funded by donations from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

If Congress does not act quickly, “there will be gaps that could have a really negative impact on election departments’ ability to administer a safe and secure process this November,” she added. “That’s how you end up with lines that wrap around city blocks.”

But lawmakers and the private donors who stepped up in 2020 appear increasingly likely to remain on the sidelines as election administration has evolved over the past two years into a fiercely partisan issue, largely because of unfounded attacks on the last election from former president Donald Trump and his Republican allies. Meanwhile, Democrats’ year-long push for national voting rights legislation failed in the Senate last month, leaving the party without a clear path to close the funding gaps.

With a new round of funding in doubt, Epps-Johnson is among those calling for a major new federal infusion of election cash and warning that shortfalls could mean fewer polling places, reduced access to early voting or mail ballots, delayed security upgrades and other setbacks — even in states that have embraced expanding voter access, let alone those that have moved since 2020 to restrict it.

“There’s a lot of financial pressure,” said Scott McDonell, the clerk in Dane County, Wis., home of Madison. “There are a lot of demands on the election system right now.”

The impending funding gap largely flew under the radar on Capitol Hill in 2021 as Democrats battled to counter a passel of Republican-passed state laws that sought to roll back early voting, mail voting and other conveniences that became a target of Trump’s false stolen-election claims. Now, the midterm elections are already underway: Texas opened early voting this week for its March 1 primary amid fears that new voting rules could lead to the rejection of thousands of mailed ballots.

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CTCL is calling for a $20 billion federal investment over 10 years, while a separate report issued by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) last month proposed an ongoing annual federal funding commitment conditioned on the adoption of a set of national voting standards that include ideas favored by both Republicans and Democrats. That could amount to as much as $400 million annually, matching the amount of emergency pandemic aid that Congress sent to election officials in 2020.

“It’s not a huge amount of money for Congress to appropriate for democracy in the United States, and it’s a number that they’ve done before,” said Matthew Weil, director of the BPC’s election project.

Key Democrats proposed including as much as $20 billion in new federal election spending in their sprawling domestic policy bill last year, but it was not included in a key budget framework and the bill is now indefinitely stalled in any case.

On Tuesday, a group of 33 Senate Democrats led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) called on President Biden to include $5 billion in his upcoming 2023 budget to “ensure that state and local election officials continue to receive the resources needed to administer, improve, and modernize our elections” — money that could be spent in time for the next presidential election but not this year’s midterms.

The vagaries of Senate rules mean any action this year would have to be bipartisan, and Republicans appear to be highly skeptical of any new election spending. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who helped engineer a $380 million federal investment in elections in 2018, said there was simply too much federal money left unspent by the states to consider additional rounds of funding.

According to the federal Election Assistance Commission, roughly $435 million in election security funding remains unused in state accounts. That funding, however, cannot generally be used to cover increased operating costs; in most cases, states are holding it in reserve for planned voting machine upgrades. The $400 million in 2020 covid emergency aid, meanwhile, is largely spent and cannot be used for this year’s election in any case.

“I’m just not looking to be able to send the states more money for election stuff when they already have it,” Lankford said.

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Congress could pass a new omnibus appropriations bill as soon as next month, spending more than $1 trillion to keep government agencies funded through September. But that deal is unlikely to include significant money to help beleaguered state and local election officials, lawmakers said this month.

“This should be a bipartisan priority,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a key Senate appropriator. “Unfortunately, it’s not.”

The push for more federal aid for election administrations comes at a time when state and local election officials are seeing rising costs on a variety of fronts.

Among the more concerning forces is a crunch in the supply chain for paper, which is needed for ballots, mail-voting envelopes, voter registration forms and more. The cost of paper has gone up by as much as 50 percent around the country, multiple election officials and paper suppliers said — a consequence of timber mills shuttering due to pandemic-related worker shortages, as well as the conversion of many mills to produce cardboard boxes for online retailers.

On top of that, the demand for mail voting exploded with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, creating a need for vastly more envelopes, mail-ballot applications and printed instructions. While many state and local election officials have said that, so far this year, they have managed to procure the paper products they need to run their upcoming primaries, it has not been without an added outlay of cash. The higher volume of mail ballots has also vastly increased local postage costs, officials said.

Other financial pressures include the need to offer more competitive pay to election workers to fill a growing field of vacancies at a time when threats to election workers have hit all-time highs. The still-spreading belief that the 2020 election was tainted by widespread fraud, including unsubstantiated allegations that tabulating machines were hacked and programmed to throw the results to Biden, has also caused a surge in demand for new election equipment.

Donald Palmer, chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, said his agency has started to field concerns from both election vendors and administrators about costs and availability of equipment and materials — particularly paper. Some vendors, he said, have already missed deadlines for some mailers and voter cards.

Palmer, who was nominated by Trump and confirmed on a bipartisan basis in 2019, said he was watching the situation closely but questioned whether a new influx of federal funding would be sufficient to address it.

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“It’s not really clear what the federal government can do because it’s a supply chain problem, but we want to, we are going to explore what we could do,” he said. “The fundamental thing is education for election officials, and that is order early and prepare early. … You don’t want to be in a situation where you don’t get a delivery in time for an election.”

Meanwhile, it is unclear — at best — whether there will be a significant pool of private money to dole out this year as there was in 2020. At least 10 states have moved since then to ban election agencies from accepting private grants, with several more states considering bans this year. The Zuckerberg-Chan funding, in particular, quickly became a target of Republicans who claimed the grants were funneled to heavily Democratic cities and counties and gave Biden an unfair advantage in the 2020 election.

Epps-Johnson, whose group distributed the funds, did not dispute outside analyses that showed CTCL’s grants went disproportionately to Democratic jurisdictions. But, she said, that reflected where the requests for funding came from, not any bias on the part of her organization. She also noted that the states that have restricted private philanthropy have not generally provided any new public funding to replace it.

“We made our grant funding available to every election department that applied,” she said. “Our position from the very beginning has been it’s not an ideal situation for private philanthropy to be the funding source for election administration — election departments and voters deserve predictable, robust federal funding of elections.”

While Epps-Johnson said CTCL is “committed to continuing to have election officials’ backs” in 2022 and beyond, it appears unlikely that Zuckerberg and Chan will repeat their massive spending. Asked about their future commitments, a family spokeswoman pointed to Zuckerberg’s 2020 statements on the funding “where he discusses how this was a one-time effort due to the pandemic.”

Chris Piper, Virginia’s top election administrator, said he has no problem with a ban on the outsourcing of election funding and expects such a measure to pass in Virginia this year. But in that case, “properly funding election offices across the country should be a priority,” he said.

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Virginia’s new governor, Glenn Youngkin (R), announced on conservative talk radio in late January that he plans to replace Piper later this year. Youngkin made the announcement after the host, John Fredericks, claimed that the state election office had been “deeply infiltrated” by “partisan, left-wing nonprofits” — an apparent reference to the CTCL grants.

Piper said his office did not accept any money from the nonprofit, and that the vast majority of the grants that came to Virginia went to Republican counties that voted for Trump.

“What bothers me the most is the disinformation or misinformation surrounding it,” Piper said. “The money went through a grant process and it’s all been very transparent. I understand the concern for sure, but I try to remind people that the 2020 grant money wasn’t used for anything other than to assist election officials as they conducted an unprecedented election.”

McDonell, the Wisconsin-based clerk, said that about a third of his $1 million election budget goes toward the cost of ballots, but that cost has risen by about 50 percent as a result of paper supply chain issues.

“Clerks take this money because they’re broke,” McDonell said. “They’ve been dealing with the pandemic. They’ve been dealing with increased costs, and they’ve been dealing with levy limits at the state level that have been going on for years, so they’ve been unable to raise taxes. I don’t really like private money for elections, but then you’ve got to come up with another way to fund them, like federal grants.”

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