Inaction by Congress leaves states to pay for election costs

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FILE - California Secretary of State Alex Padilla talks during a news conference Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. It is appalling that Congress has not provided the needed resources for state and local elections officials during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Padilla. Elections officials ability to fill the gap is nearly impossible given the already strained state and local government budgets.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

ATLANTA – Congress’ failure so far to pass another round of coronavirus aid leaves state and local officials on their own to deal with the soaring costs of holding a presidential election amid a deadly pandemic.

That could leave them scrambling to solve problems that surfaced during the primary season in time for November's election.

The coronavirus outbreak has triggered unprecedented disruptions for election officials across the U.S. They are dealing with staffing shortages and budget constraints while also trying to figure out how to process a flood of absentee ballot requests, as more and more states have moved to mail-in balloting as a safer way to vote.

“It is appalling that Congress has not provided the needed resources for state and local elections officials during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. “Elections officials’ ability to fill the gap is nearly impossible given the already strained state and local government budgets.”

In its first round of virus relief in March, Congress sent $400 million to state election offices to help cover unexpected costs related to the pandemic. But that is far short of the $2 billion the Brennan Center for Justice has said is needed.

“Congress’s failure to reach a coronavirus deal is imperiling November’s elections," said Wendy Weiser, director of the center's democracy program. "Without an infusion of federal funds, election officials simply won’t be able to prepare adequately for the election, and we will see massive meltdowns across the country.”

In the U.S., state and local officials are responsible for administering elections and covering the costs. But there was no way for them to plan for holding an election in the middle of a pandemic, essentially having to deal with a massive surge in absentee ballots while also trying to keep in-person voting options available after many workers opted out of staffing the polls during the primaries.

“This wasn’t in anyone’s budget," said Ben Hovland, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which provides support for state and local election officials.