COVID-19 bill sends $400 million to help states with elections

The money could be used for a variety of measures intended to make voting safer during the outbreak, including expanding mail-in voting.


By Christina A. Cassidy

ATLANTA — States could receive $400 million in federal funds to help them navigate the significant disruption to U.S. elections caused by the coronavirus outbreak, which has prompted officials in at least 20 states to push back some voting as large portions of the population have been told to stay home and avoid crowds.

The money, part of a compromise federal economic plan obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday, could be used to pay for expanding mail-in voting, adding polling places to reduce crowds, training poll workers or implementing other measures intended to make voting safer during the outbreak. 

At least 13 states have postponed voting and more delays are possible as health officials warn that social distancing and other measures to contain the virus might be in place for weeks, if not months. Image: AP Photo/Morry Gash
At least 13 states have postponed voting and more delays are possible as health officials warn that social distancing and other measures to contain the virus might be in place for weeks, if not months. Image: AP Photo/Morry Gash

The amount is a fraction of what Democrats and some election experts say is needed to accomplish a more ambitious overhaul of state voting systems before the November general election. Some Senate Democrats had sought $2 billion for states as part of an emergency effort to expand early voting and make mail-in ballots available to every voter, which have also been longtime goals for Democrats. 

The ultimate compromise was much closer to the Republican-led Senate plans and meant largely to assist with states' near-term concerns. That approach drew criticism from some advocates and election experts. 

This is seriously insufficient to get the job done in November and have an election that is healthy and fair for all Americans," said Wendy Weiser, head of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "I worry that they think there is time. There isn't time. It takes months to make the changes needed to make sure we have our election infrastructure ready for November."

The coronavirus pandemic has upended presidential primaries across the country as election officials look to balance public health concerns with the need to hold elections. 

Thirteen states have pushed back presidential primaries by days, weeks or even two months to account for all the disruptions. Several have rescheduled for June 2, setting that date up as the next — and last — "Super Tuesday" in the fight between Democrats Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Pennsylvania was the latest to delay, with lawmakers agreeing Wednesday that its primary will be held June 2.

For states that have opted not to reschedule, officials have found themselves dealing with what one Chicago elections official called a "tsunami" of cancellations by poll workers, who tend to be older, and a last-minute scramble to relocate polling places out of nursing homes and senior living communities. 

The next election on the calendar is in Wisconsin, where one city has filed a federal lawsuit seeking a delay to the April 7 primary, arguing local governments are finding it "functionally impossible" to administer the election and maintain social distancing.

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., has co-sponsored legislation that would expand no-excuse absentee voting to all states, extend early in-person voting in every state to at least 20 days and reimburse states for additional costs in administering elections during the pandemic. Coons said he would continue pushing for more funds to be sent to states for elections.

It's on the federal government to safeguard our constitutional rights and make sure that, even while our country faces this pandemic, we still protect our democracy," Coons said in a statement.

In Georgia, the March 24 presidential primary was pushed back to May 19, and state election officials said earlier this week that they plan to spend an estimated $13 million to send an absentee ballot application to all 6.9 million active registered voters in the state. That includes funds to hire a third-party vendor to print all the absentee ballots that will ultimately be sent. 

"We didn't wait to make this announcement to find out what the federal government was going to do," Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said, noting the office still needs to plan for the November election. "We're going to take this one election at a time."

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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