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'Epic failure': Election officials warn of November chaos due to budget crunch

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) — A Michigan town wants machines to speed up counting of absentee ballots. In Ohio, officials want to equip polling places so voters and poll workers feel safe from the coronavirus. Georgia officials, rattled by a chaotic election last month, want to send voters forms so they can request absentee ballots more easily.

In all three cases, the money is not there to make it happen, say local officials responsible for running elections in the states — any one of which could determine who wins the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Presidential nominating contests held this year in states from Wisconsin to Georgia have exposed massive challenges in conducting elections during the worst public health crisis in a century. Closed or understaffed polling venues led to long lines, there were problems delivering absentee ballots, and the votes took days, even weeks, to count.

But instead of receiving more money for the all-important contest between Republican President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, officials face budget cuts after tax revenues plunged in the virus-stricken economy, two dozen election officials across several battleground states told Reuters.

The consequences, they warn, go beyond practical headaches to the risk voters’ faith in the process will be undermined.

“What kind of price tag are you going to put on the integrity of the election process and the safety of those who work it and those who vote?” said Tina Barton, the city clerk and chief elections official in Rochester Hills, Michigan, a state where Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes. “Those are the things at risk.”

This year’s nominating contests have shown that voting in the pandemic age costs more: Officials have to buy masks, face shields and other equipment to virus-proof polling places. They also must spend more to mail and count ballots.

Many officials say they don’t have the funding to do either job properly. Election experts say Americans are likely to vote in record numbers in November, when control of Congress will also be up for grabs along with state governorships and legislatures.

A funding shortfall could lead to “widespread disenfranchisement,” said Myrna Perez, director of the elections program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan public policy institute. “We run the risk of people really questioning the legitimacy of the election.”

Congress approved $400 million in federal funding to help states hold the elections as part of the CARES Act coronavirus aid package passed in March - that’s just one-tenth of the $4 billion that experts at the Brennan Center have estimated will be needed this year to hold safe and fair elections during the pandemic.

Introducing a vote-by-mail system in new locales will require officials to pay for new paper ballots and thick security envelopes, and to buy expensive new machines to sort and tabulate them. Postage alone will cost nearly $600 million, the center estimated.

A fresh coronavirus aid bill passed in May in the Democratic-led House of Representatives includes $3.6 billion in new election funding for state and local governments. Some Republicans said they were open to considering more election funding, but opposed planned rules to make states boost mail-in voting, and the bill has no chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate.

Trump and his Republican allies say mail voting is prone to fraud and favors Democrats, although independent studies have found little evidence of those claims. Democrats say efforts to discredit mail balloting, coupled with a possible fall in polling venues, could depress turnout.

Hans von Spakovsky, a former Republican member of the Federal Elections Commission who works at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said officials could cut costs by focusing on keeping polling places safe, rather than trying to ramp up voting by mail.

“I’m not saying that this is easy but it is not going to be as difficult as all these people are predicting,” von Spakovsky said.

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