Ensuring Safe and Secure Elections in 2020 During a Pandemic
On Thursday, April 30, the R Street Institute; the Brennan Center for Justice; the Alliance for Securing Democracy; the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security; and a number of local election officials hosted a press call about protecting elections and voters during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. The call was tied to the newly released joint report by the ideologically diverse organizations called, “Ensuring Safe Elections: Federal Funding Needs for State and Local Governments During the Pandemic.” The report focused on five states: Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Liz Howard, counsel in the democracy program at the Brennan Center and former deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Elections said there are two common themes to what local election officials are saying. “What Congress has provided to our officials to run elections in a pandemic does not even come close to what is needed for safe and healthy elections in 2020,” she said. “The aggregated estimated cost of the five states profiled in the report are more than the $400 million already allocated by Congress.”
“Nobody should be facing the choice of their health or exercising their right to vote,” said Paul Rosenzweig, senior fellow for national security and cybersecurity at the R Street Institute and former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security. “We need to act now to provide Americans ways to vote safely in these new times. Achieving these goals will cost money and states do not have the resources to fund these programs effectively.”
David Levine, elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, highlighted the double crisis facing elections in 2020. On top of the expected challenges election officials face—such as making sure all eligible voters are able to cast ballots —voters and election officials are now more aware than ever of foreign interference and the coronavirus in relation to our elections process.
In November 2019, the heads of several federal agencies stated that in the 2020 election cycle, “Russia, China, Iran and other foreign malicious actors all will seek to interfere in the voting process or influence voter perceptions. Adversaries may try to accomplish their goals through a variety of means, including social media campaigns, directing disinformation operations or conducting disruptive or destructive cyber-attacks on state and local infrastructure.”
Without further funding from Congress, there’s a real risk that COVID-19 could impede Americans’ abilities to cast ballots and have them count, Levine noted.
“This is a national crisis that demands national action,” said Christopher Deluzio, policy director at the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security. “Our state and local officials in Pennsylvania are facing a challenge to democracy. We’re working to keep voters and election staff safe, while also providing open lanes for Americans to participate in elections.”
In addition to advocates and experts, local election officials from Ohio, Michigan and Missouri spoke about the challenges they face due to the coronavirus and agreed unanimously that more funding was necessary.
Ricky Hatch, auditor/clerk for Weber County in Utah and representative of the National Association of Counties, described his county in detail, with the added context that more than 90 percent of Utahans vote by mail. “My election team is three full-time employees, and we have 110,000 active registered voters and a population of 260,000. That puts us in the top 10 percent of the largest counties in the nation,” Hatch said. “We anticipate about $1 per voter in additional costs because of the pandemic. We need help with this pandemic and we are begging Congress to let us choose how we use these unique resources. Counties need the assistance directly to make sure it does not get stuck in bureaucratic red tape and is spent well.”
Tina Barton, city clerk for Rochester Hills, Michigan explained the resources required to ensure safe and healthy voting during the pandemic. “Everything needed in order to make voting possible is going to cost far more than any state or county has to spend right now. Michigan has more than 7.5 million voters and over 1,500 local and county clerks administering elections. The average Michigan election worker is 70 years old, and each precinct will need one individual at each location to wipe down materials between voters. That means training 300 to 400 people to handle elections with social distancing,” Barton said. “To allow for voting by mail, we have to consider the cost of mailing tens of thousands of ballots, purchasing envelopes and return envelopes, new machines for opening and scanning ballots, storage costs and more.”
“We consider the right to vote paramount in our country. We take our oath to the constitution seriously, as well as our duties to the office,” said Shane Schoeller, second vice president for the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities. “We are not asking to become an all-ballot mail system in our nation. But there are a number of commonsense proposals that will come with costs.” Those specific to the coronavirus pandemic add tens of thousands of dollars to his costs. “We postponed one election from April to June. Just to keep up with staffing costs, PPE, a high-speed scanner for absentee ballots, training and more will cost tens of thousands of dollars that we do not currently have.” Shane said he was thankful for the money Congress has already allocated, but without additional funding, “voters could lose confidence in us.”
Three officials from Ohio spoke on the call. Michelle Wilcox, president of the Ohio Election Officials Association and the director of the Auglaize County Board of Elections, reminded listeners that local officials are responsible for the additional costs and responsibilities of COVID-19. In Licking county, they spent over $15,000 on overtime pay in the recent elections. “Warren County spent over $80,000 in postage with just a 29 percent turnout,” she said. “What would the costs be for a 70 to 90 percent turnout?” It normally takes three years for a state to incorporate a fully by-mail election. “Ohio did it in 30 days.”
Lisa Welch, first vice president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials and director of the Holmes County Board of Elections, said Holmes County had to train 30 additional poll workers in the days leading up to this week’s election because most are over the age of 60 and were concerned about the coronavirus. “Most of our smaller boards of elections are staffed by two people of opposite parties. That’s it,” she noted. Part-time help worked an average of 36 hours a week for the last six weeks, Welch revealed. She said that in the fall, Ohio will need more people, and the costs of hiring and training new staff are her largest concern. “We need direction now to know what we’re going to be required to do. Will polling places be open? We paid to move supplies, then polling places were closed the night before the elections. That cost us money we can’t use on voting-by-mail efforts.” Welch also warned that she’s being asked to cut her budget, because it is reliant upon tourism that has declined during the coronavirus.
Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Election Officials Association, echoed Michelle’s comments and said, “Safety was our number one concern on election day. Our governor and secretary of state have been very aggressive on the COVID-19 response.” He described the various measures the state took, from setting up tents to temperature tests and social distancing enforcement.