Decline in federal grant funding for local elections criticized by advocates

(Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill passed by Congress last week includes $75 million in Help America Vote Act grants — a major reduction compared to years past.

Experts say the $75 million is insufficient to fund local elections and leaves local election offices without resources to improve election infrastructure and protect the security of elections.

Though Congress has only funded local elections three times since 2010, the $75 million in the latest spending bill is far from the $53 billion over 10 years that election security experts say is necessary. It’s also far less than the $500 million proposed by the House in its original spending proposal.

“It’s always great to see Congress getting resources to state and local election officials and really recognizing their responsibility to help fund elections, but $75 million is far short of what is needed right now to really secure and protect our election infrastructure,” said Derek Tisler, counsel with the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“It’s also considerably less than the funding we saw in recent years leading up to the 2020 election.”

In 2018 and 2020 respectively, Congress approved $380 million and $425 million in HAVA Election Security Funds for states to improve the administration of elections for federal office.

But Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said that while the spending bill is a decrease from prior years, she still considers it a win.

“The House bill proposed to reinstate Election Security Grant funding, a priority for House Democrats, after receiving no funding last year,” the Connecticut Democrat said in a statement. “With slim margins in both chambers, passage of the final federal spending package relied on our ability to reach agreements. This transformative federal spending package — including this $75 million in new Election Security Grant funding — is a victory.”

In response to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Congress also designated $400 million for emergency election funding as part of the CARES Act.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission explained that the funding could be used to protect the health and safety of poll workers, staff, and voters during federal elections, including buying cleaning supplies and protective masks and hiring staff needed to process an increased number of absentee ballots.

Though the pandemic is not yet over and many parts of the country may have to administer elections this year while still seeing high case rates, Congress’ latest spending bill does not fund President Joe Biden’s plan to continue fighting COVID-19 and prepare for future variants, nor does it allocate money specifically for administering an election in this unusual time.

Voters in many states have also come to expect some conveniences that debuted during the 2020 election as a result of the pandemic, like increased options for voting by mail, and election officials will need the money to make sure they don’t have to eliminate them.

“To the extent that those things were temporary in 2020, a lot of states are now looking to make them permanent and make them better and more efficient for voters, and that takes a lot of resources,” Tisler said.

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