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Stimulus Money to Protect Elections Falls Short, Critics Say

The New York Times logo The New York Times 3 days ago Michael Wines
Election workers sorted mailed ballots for the Washington State presidential primary earlier this month. The state conducts its elections almost entirely by mail. © Jason Redmond/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Election workers sorted mailed ballots for the Washington State presidential primary earlier this month. The state conducts its elections almost entirely by mail.

The $2 trillion stimulus package that was approved by the Senate on Wednesday contains $400 million to address one of the most uncertain impacts of the coronavirus outbreak — its potential to wreak havoc with voting, including the presidential election in November.

The figure falls far short of what state officials and voting rights experts have said is needed to ensure a safe and accurate count if the virus keeps millions of people away from polling places in primary elections and on Election Day.

The $400 million in the stimulus package is one-fifth of the $2 billion that voting experts said was needed and that some Democrats had sought. The money could only be used to help states create and staff new polling places to reduce crowding, or to increase opportunities to register online and vote by mail, according to a Senate official who declined to be named because he was not authorized to talk about specifics of the legislation.

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Voting-rights advocates said the money was a shadow of the amount needed to ensure that the November general election goes smoothly if the pandemic has not ebbed. “It’s a start, but inadequate to the crisis,” Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said of the proposal. “If Congress doesn’t provide full funding, we could have a fiasco in November.”

Mr. Waldman called support for the election “a patriotic duty to protect a basic democratic function,” and said that state and local election officials of both parties broadly supported further funding to make balloting safe. “It would be a tragedy if this turned into partisan talking points,” he said.

The $400 million appeared to be a compromise figure reached with Senate Republicans, who proposed spending $140 million.

On social media, opposition to spending on voting by mail was concentrated among conservatives like Representative Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican, who claimed mostly that it would open the gates to fraud.

In an interview, Mr. Massie said he won every precinct in a 2010 mayor’s race in Vanceburg, Ky., only to discover that a rival who had won only 20 percent of the in-person vote “blew me away in the absentee ballots.”

“That’s when the light went on,” he said. “You could game the absentees.”

Election analysts say fraud is a negligible problem in elections, but what little is detected generally involves absentee ballots delivered by hand or by mail. Six states, including heavily Democratic Oregon and solidly Republican Utah, already allow all or almost all voters to cast ballots by mail, and 29 others allow citizens to cast absentee ballots without offering a reason. None has encountered significant fraud in recent years, beyond a 2019 House election in North Carolina, which was stained by absentee-ballot fraud conducted by supporters of the Republican candidate.

That fraud was quickly detected, as would be true with mailed-in votes, said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist. “We know it occasionally happens, but there is a good check in place,” he said.

Since the pandemic gained momentum, several states have sought to alter their voting rules to allow residents to cast mail ballots instead of crowding into polling places. Michigan, which allows residents to apply for no-excuse absentee ballots, has gone a step further and authorized sending applications for the ballots to all registered voters. Other states that require an excuse to cast an absentee ballot, including West Virginia and Alabama, have either temporarily waived the requirement or pledged to include exposure to the coronavirus under the illness exceptions on their absentee ballot applications.

Others, like Missouri, have left the decision up to local election officials; Kansas City does not count fear of the coronavirus as a valid excuse to vote absentee, while St. Louis does.

Mr. McDonald and others said federal funding is not crucial to states that allow mailed ballots, or to states like Wisconsin where no-excuse absentee ballots have been embraced by large numbers of voters. But in states that are unused to it, gearing up for a flood of mailed-in ballots is both an expensive and a complicated process.

“They don’t have the equipment,” Mr. McDonald said. “They have to print out all these ballots and send them out, manage absentee ballot requests, and once the ballots come back in, they have to count them all.”

The Brennan Center asked a panel of election experts to tally the cost of protecting this year’s elections from the coronavirus. They concluded that it would cost $1.4 billion to ensure that every voter received a mail-in ballot, and hundreds of millions more to staff and process the ballot count and to educate voters.

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