With the country in crisis mode responding to the coronavirus, several states are now turning to their election security funds from the massive stimulus package signed by President Trump amid plans to cover unanticipated costs stemming from the virus.
ABC News has confirmed that several states— including the political battleground states of Pennsylvania and Ohio as well as Rhode Island, Connecticut, Tennessee, and Alabama—are either now using or intend to use election security funds, including coronavirus stimulus money designated to protect the 2020 elections from malicious cyber activity, to fight their own statewide battles against COVID-19.
“We are assessing all election security and administration needs and will allocate accordingly,” said Wanda Murren, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Secretary of State.
The National Association of Secretaries of State issued guidance to states on how best to prepare for the elections amid concerns about the virus, but says decisions about how to spend election security money in a time of national crisis is up to each state.
"As with any federal funds, states have questions about how they can be used, timing and other logistics, and are looking to the federal government for guidance on these issues," said a spokesperson for the National Association of Secretaries of State. " I would defer to states on their specific plans for spending their portion of the money."
Out of the $2 trillion relief package, $400 million was allocated to help states bolster their efforts to ensure the integrity of the upcoming elections. But now some states are in the position of having to choose between shoring up their election defenses versus getting needed medical supplies to their hardest hit counties.
A Democratic House aide familiar with the stimulus negotiations said there were provisions to limit the state spending of election security funds to items including vote by mail and early voting, but were ultimately opposed.
“The Ohio Secretary of State’s Office used 2018 Help America Vote funds to help all 88 county boards of elections lighten the cost of purchasing disinfectant and other supplies useful in stopping the spread of contagious diseases, “ said Maggie Sheehan, press secretary for the Ohio Secretary of State on money previously allocated for election security. The state, she said, also plans on using the more recently allocated election security stimulus funds, but has yet to receive an award letter.
The threat of foreign influence in the 2020 elections remains a key concern for many states as voters will rely even more heavily on digitized information as traditional campaigning has ground to a halt. But some states now have to choose between preparing for an election free of malicious foreign cyber activity or addressing the public health emergency stemming from the coronavirus.
A new national poll from the Pew Research Center finds that 66% of Americans would feel uncomfortable going to a polling place to cast their vote.
The crisis is so extensive that even states as small as Rhode Island aren’t ruling out their options to utilize their election security funding to address the challenges stemming from the public health emergency.
“We do foresee using some of that at least while the new coronavirus cases come in,” said Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea.
Realizing the challenge of motivating voters to get out to the polls amid fears of contracting the virus, some states are adjusting the way their citizens can cast their ballot.
Rhode Island's voters usually head to their local polling centers to cast paper ballots, but as the June primary nears, the state now estimates spending nearly a million in postage so votes can be cast by mail.
“Our election system was geared towards a precinct-based voting majority, now we are going to have to centralize all of those operations.” said Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea. “This kind of massive change can have the unintentional impact of disenfranchising voters.”
For other states with counties that rely on electronic voting machines and don’t actively offer voters the opportunity to vote by mail, election security experts warn there is limited time to act before the November general election.
“Election officials need to plan as though there are still going to be significant restrictions on how people move by November,” said Richard Hasen, an election law scholar at the University of California, Irvine. “It’s going be very hard to staff polling places, if there are remaining areas with social distancing. Machinery is going to have to be kept clean, and more employees are going to be required to do these kinds of things.”
With a vastly increased likelihood of absentee balloting, states will need to ensure they still have enough funding to accommodate the costs that come from processing those ballots as they respond to COVID-19.
A Democratic House aide working with California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, said there’s a need to pursue further legislation ensuring that voters can safely participate in elections as the nationwide response to the virus continues.
“Many states are not well prepared for this,” Hasen said. “That’s a real problem because elections are like big ships: they take time to turn.”