Cash-Strapped Election Offices Have Fewer Resources After Bans On Private Grants


This article was originally published at Stateline.

This month, Wisconsin joined 27 other states that have banned or restricted local governments’ use of private donations to run cash-strapped election offices, buy voting equipment or hire poll workers for Election Day.

All of the state laws came in the past four years, pushed by conservative lawmakers and activists who claim that Democratic voters disproportionately benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in grants primarily funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, during the 2020 presidential election.

Courts and federal regulators have rejected those claims, but the debate over the role of outside money reveals a broader worry among election experts, who say there are significant shortcomings in local government funding of election offices. That includes not just Election Day duties and vote counting, but also the year-round administrative work of maintaining voter rolls and taking care of and updating voting equipment.

This isn’t a situation where we can just overcome it with pure grit and buck up and get it done. We need the tools to get it done.

– Dusty Farmer, election clerk of Oshtemo Township, Mich.

Local municipal budgets are tight, and they vary depending on the tax base. It can be hard to justify a new ballot-counting machine when there are potholes to fix or schools to fund.

The ongoing funding uncertainty is untenable, said Tammy Patrick, the chief executive officer for programs at the National Association of Election Officials. Election officials need to have consistent funding to know they can replace outdated equipment and provide a secure and efficient voting experience, she said.

“Ultimately and ideally, we wouldn’t need to run such a critical function of our democracy relying on volunteers or donations,” said Patrick, who is leading a national initiative to promote election funding. “Everyone wants our elections to be secure, accessible, legitimate. And in order to have that, we have to support our election administrators.”

Funding democracy

Counting ballots at 2:30 a.m. on election night in 2020, Dusty Farmer, the election clerk of Oshtemo Township, Michigan, realized she should have chosen a high-speed ballot tabulator.

When Michigan voters amended the state constitution in 2018 to allow for voting absentee without having to provide an excuse to officials, the number of mail-in ballots shot up and townships had to find a way to process those new ballots. Farmer opted for the less expensive, slower ballot processors.

After two years of lobbying her local board, she was able to secure the $40,000 high-speed counting machines last year — a “big investment” ahead of the 2024 election, she said.

“This isn’t a situation where we can just overcome it with pure grit and buck up and get it done,” Farmer said. “We need the tools to get it done.”

Money from Congress has been limited. This year, congressional leaders agreed to provide $55 million in election grant funding for states to distribute locally. That is around as much as Los Angeles County alone spent conducting a gubernatorial recall election in 2021.

State and local election officials could breathe easier about some of the cybersecurity challenges if they had more funding from Congress, Arizona Democratic Secretary of State Adrian Fontes said to a room of fellow secretaries of state at a Washington, D.C., meeting in February.

“This is an unfunded federal mandate, the only part of our critical infrastructure that does not have sustained federal funding,” he said.

State money for elections varies widely. Lawmakers in some states do not allocate any of their budget to local election officials. In many cases, states just distribute federal grants for improving election security or as reimbursement for new equipment. Often, however, states hold onto federal grants dollars because they are unsure when the next installment from Congress might come.

Other states do allocate some local election funding in their budgets, but often not at a level that would allow for major equipment replacement, said Matthew Weil, executive director of the Democracy Program at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a D.C.-based think tank.

States such as Alabama, Colorado, Hawaii and Louisiana also reimburse localities for a portion of elections where statewide candidates are on the ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Alaska and Delaware pay for all expenses of state and federal elections, while other states will pay for statewide special elections or presidential primary elections.

Funding elections mostly at the local level is not the model that is going to work for the future, Weil said.

But asking state governments to use their limited budgets on election equipment is politically tough, he added; it’s hard to cut a ribbon on a new $100 million voting system. Local governments spend as much on elections as they do to maintain parking facilities, according to a report by the MIT Election Data and Science Lab to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission in 2021.

“I don’t necessarily disagree with banning private funding in elections,” Weil said. “But that does require that counties, states and the federal government step up and fund elections at the levels they need to provide the services that voters have come to expect.”

Banning private money in elections

Four years ago, as thousands of Americans died every day during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, local election officials hurriedly prepared for the 2020 presidential election, not knowing whether they had the money needed to allow voters to safely cast a ballot and for their staff to safely count those votes.

Foreseeing a democratic disaster, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a Chicago-based nonprofit, used $350 million from Zuckerberg and Chan to hand out grants to nearly 2,500 local election offices across 49 states.

Local clerks, like Robin Cleveland of Williamstown Township, Michigan, used that money to buy personal protective equipment, pay and train temporary election workers, and run voter education campaigns.

The $5,000 private grant was essential for getting “desperately needed” supplies for her small community east of Lansing, Cleveland said. Though she feels supported by her township board, she has not been able to pay election workers more competitive wages nor replace “ancient” equipment — except in 2018, when she got a federal grant for new ballot tabulators.

“Basically, the money has to come from somewhere if we’re going to have safe, secure and accurate elections,” she wrote to Stateline in an email about private grants.

In Wisconsin, more than 200 communities received a collective $10 million in private grants. Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Milwaukee and Racine — the state’s most populous cities — received 86% of that money, according to a report by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a conservative litigation group that supported the ballot question to ban private donations for election administration. Those five cities accounted for nearly 18% of the state’s total registered voters.

It was important to prevent outside groups from potentially dictating terms for grants or giving the impression that the money is helping a certain political party, said Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

“It creates an appearance of impropriety, and it undermines confidence in the outcome of the election,” he said. “Elections are a public function that have to be undertaken with scrupulous neutrality.”

Esenberg doesn’t think elections are underfunded. If local election officials feel like they need more money, he said, they should go to their state legislature.

Voters approved the state’s new constitutional amendment by more than 54%.

Of the 28 states that have now enacted bans, only Pennsylvania supplemented its measure with more election funding. In 2022, then-Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law the compromise measure, which invested $45 million in local elections.

‘A total lifeline’

Before Wisconsin’s ban went into effect, Cities Forward, a nonprofit based in the state, awarded an $800,000 grant to Milwaukee for new ballot tabulators, text messaging services to reach voters and polling place upgrades. Madison was also able to spend $1.5 million from Center for Tech and Civic Life and U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence grants before the ban went into place.

The need hasn’t dissipated, said Tiana Epps-Johnson, founder and executive director of the Center for Tech and Civic Life, the nonprofit that drew conservative ire. Election officials need equipment, such as fast-counting ballot processing machines, to prevent delays in results that can fuel misinformation, she said.

“We hear from election officials in every corner of the country who are severely underfunded,” she said. “Right now, election officials run the risk of having equipment that is not up to the task of the demand that they’re going to see from voters this fall.”

Although the Center for Tech and Civic Life is not issuing grants this election cycle, it is a founding partner of the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence, which has been distributing money to local offices in states that allow it in the years since the last presidential election.

Macoupin County, Illinois, a downstate farming community halfway between St. Louis and Springfield, recently received a $500,000 grant to create a new early voting center — an amount equivalent to two years of the county’s election budget.

The voting center, which opened in January, is in a building that used to house an insurance agency and law office. It sits across the street from the courthouse, where early voters used to have to cast ballots in cramped hallways, next to people waiting for their court dates. Election equipment was stored under staircases in a hallway or in the boiler room.

“It was a total lifeline that otherwise never would have happened,” said Pete Duncan, the county clerk. “While we would love for it to have been federal or state funding that came in to help get this accomplished, that’s just not something that the feds or states are interested in doing.”

This article was originally published at Stateline. Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Scott S. Greenberger for questions: Follow Stateline on Facebook and Twitter.

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