Cash-strapped states, which Congress just pumped $150 billion into, will nonetheless have to pony up in order to access new election security grants in the massive new coronavirus aid package signed by President Donald Trump last week.
The $2.3 trillion aid bill contains $400 million to "prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, for the 2020 Federal election cycle." The Election Assistance Commission, an independent, bipartisan commission established in 2002, will administer the grants.
But consistent with past practice, and EAC guidelines, the money comes with strings attached: States need to put up matching funds equal to 20 percent of their federal aid. Previous election security grants required a state match, most recently the 20 percent state match required for $425 million provided in regular fiscal 2020 appropriations last December.
But some election security experts were taken aback that the matching funds requirement wasn't waived in the latest round of aid, and House Democrats are already planning to include a fix in the "phase four" COVID-19 bill they are prepping.
According to some state officials and others, the match requirement may pose a hardship at a time when states find their budgets under pressure due to the government-imposed economic shutdown that is cutting deeply into tax revenue and increasing spending on government assistance programs. That's why the latest aid package included $150 billion for a "state stabilization fund," for instance.
Beyond that, some states would need their legislatures to approve the match in order to apply for a grant. And many state legislatures are no longer in session because of the pandemic.
It appears the decision to continue the match requirement in the emergency bill was a conscious one rather than an oversight. The issue of whether to continue the match was discussed during negotiations over the bill, according to sources who requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
The National Governors Association has not taken a position on the state match. But James Nash, a spokesman for the organization, said the NGA has heard from several states “that a state match requirement could impose financial burdens on states already facing unprecedented strains, and potential logistical hurdles around the approval of state funds with many legislatures unable to convene during the pandemic.”
Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the match requirement is an obstacle he thinks will cause some states not to apply for the grants.
“I do think there are a significant number of states that are going to have some trouble accessing the matching funds,” he said. Weil said two state election directors, whom he would not identify because the conversations were private, told him they “may not be able to access the funds right now because their legislatures are out, and historically when they’re accessing these election security grant funds from Congress, it’s taken an act of their state legislatures.”
Weil added that states that want to make changes to their election process to minimize the risks of the virus are running out of time to make decisions to purchase new equipment or supplies for the election.
“When it comes to getting money to states quickly so that it can have a mitigating impact on unusual circumstances surrounding the upcoming election, state match requirements are an unnecessary burden for states, which are planning for an entirely new election and that have long processes for purchasing goods and services,” he said.
An EAC official said the commission has heard such concerns from states who said they may have trouble meeting the match requirement or getting approval for a match from their legislatures.
The official said the commission plans to add guidance for the latest grants to its website soon and is also providing information to state officials through reports and webinars. “We want to provide them with as much flexibility as we can under the law to meet the match and access the funds,” Mona Harrington, acting executive director of the commission, said in an emailed statement.
State election officials and the organizations that represent them have not taken a public stance opposing the match requirement, but officials have started to focus on the issue since it became clear the new legislation continues the match.
To some analysts, an initial reading of the bill suggested the match requirement had been dropped. But House and Senate appropriations aides say the new bill language preserves the match requirement from the earlier fiscal 2020 appropriations act.
The National Association of Secretaries of State has not taken a position on the match requirement, but “our hopes are for election officials to receive the funds as soon as possible to address urgent needs around COVID-19,” Maria Benson, a spokeswoman for the association, said.
In an emailed statement, Benson said NASS “and our members are very appreciative of the $400 million in election funding” in the legislation. “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.”
In the past, the EAC allowed states to make both cash and in-kind matches, and states had two years to match the funds, according to guidance issued for the grants in the earlier fiscal 2020 appropriation. It is unclear what if any changes will be made in the guidance for the new grants.
Despite the concerns, there is no apparent way to waive the match requirement except through a change in law.
House Democrats support waiving the match in the next emergency spending bill, according to an aide who wasn't authorized to speak publicly. “We will try to address it in the next bill,” he said.
Yet the timing of the next bill is uncertain.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is pressing for a fourth package to address additional needs related to the pandemic, including up to $4 billion to help states expand voting by mail operations. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has put the brakes on that idea, saying time is needed to see how the latest bill works before considering additional legislation.
“If there is a supplemental, if it’s in the next couple of months, I think there’s still a chance for Congress to have a pretty big impact on the election,” Weil said. “But it would have to be pretty soon. And certainly if they’re going to appropriate any more money later this spring or summer, any kind of match is going to make that not very useful for 2020.”