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Senate stimulus package includes $400 million to help run elections amid the pandemic

A poll worker uses sanitizer wipes to clean the voting machines in Miami Beach, Fl., during the Florida presidential primary on March 17.
A poll worker uses sanitizer wipes to clean the voting machines in Miami Beach, Fl., during the Florida presidential primary on March 17. (Joe Raedle/AFP/Getty Images)

A $2 trillion stimulus deal reached in the Senate on Wednesday includes $400 million of election assistance for states now racing to protect voting from possible disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic — far less than Democrats said would be necessary to prepare for November’s elections.

The money will be distributed through the federal Election Assistance Commission, and states will be required to report back to the EAC on how they plan to spend the money “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.”

The Senate language, which faces a vote in the House as early as Thursday, does not include any of the mandates that Democrats had hoped to impose on states as a condition of receiving the money. Those include requiring them to make mail-in voting available to everyone and, if an election is held during a national emergency, sending a mail-in ballot to every registered voter.

Senate aims to vote Wednesday on $2 trillion coronavirus bill after landmark agreement with White House

Senate Republicans had balked at those requirements, saying that elections should be administered by state and local governments. A GOP summary of the bill said that Senate Democrats were seeking to “override state control of elections and create a federal mandate for early and mail-in-voting.”

Democrats had argued that the mandates were necessary to ensure equal access to the polls during the pandemic. Several lawmakers said Wednesday that $400 million was a good start — but also said they would not stop pushing for additional funding.

A bipartisan array of state and local election officials have also urged Congress to come up with enough money to cover their preparations for upcoming elections, which Democrats and voting advocates have estimated could cost between $2 billion and $4 billion.

The cost of printing absentee ballots and envelopes, paying for postage and purchasing high-capacity ballot scanners are among the expenses that state and local governments face.

“In times of crisis, the American people cannot be forced to choose between their health and exercising their right to vote,” Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a joint statement Wednesday. “While this funding is a step in the right direction, we must enact election reforms across the country as well as secure more resources to guarantee safe and secure elections.”

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The two senators introduced legislation that would have enacted many of the mandates and provided funding for them in the stimulus bill. Klobuchar announced Monday that her husband, University of Baltimore law professor John Bessler, has tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

House Democrats, who pushed to have many of the provisions of the Klobuchar-Wyden bill inserted into the stimulus package, have indicated that they will seek additional funds in future measures.

Jocelyn Benson (D), Michigan’s secretary of state, responded to a question on Twitter about whether $400 million was enough with a single syllable: “No.”

In an interview, Benson said the money was a good start but probably would amount to between $10 million and $15 million for Michigan — less than half of the $30 million to $40 million she believes it will cost to make mail-in balloting available to all voters.

“No one reached out to the states to say, ‘How much do you need to do this?’ ” Benson said.

Only five states — Utah, Hawaii, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — conduct elections primarily via mail-in voting. One-third of states allow absentee balloting only for a reason, such as travel or illness. Some states, such as Virginia, have declared in recent weeks that voters can cite the current public-health crisis as a reason to request absentee ballots.

Many states are preparing to expand absentee voting programs not only for the general election in November but also in upcoming primaries. On Wednesday, Indiana became the latest to do so, announcing that it would mail absentee-ballot applications for its June 2 primary to all registered voters.

A new nonpartisan voting advocacy organization, We Can Vote, is to be launched Thursday with the sole purpose of responding to the pandemic’s impact on elections. Its organizers hope to track voting rules in all 50 states as the country prepares for November, and to encourage private organizations and individuals to contribute to the effort of protecting voter access.

Jessica Barba Brown, a senior adviser to the new group, said more funding is needed than is provided in the Senate bill.

“The election in November is going to happen,” she said. “This is a good down payment to help get us to where we need to go to expand voting options and make sure that every eligible voter can vote in a way that’s healthiest for them.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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