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S2E25 - The State of Federal Election Funding with the EAC’s Ben Hovland and Votebeat’s Carrie Levine

In this episode, hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey speak to Ben Hovland and Carrie Levine. Ben is the current Vice Chair for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and Carrie is the Story Editor for Votebeat, a “nonprofit news organization committed to reporting the nuanced truth about elections and voting at a time of crisis in America.”

They spoke about the current state of federal election funding heading into the 2024 Presidential election cycle and about some of the funding challenges that come from the U.S.’s decentralized system of elections. They also spoke about the important role local election administrators play when it comes educating the public and rebuilding trust.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Associate Producers: Katie Quinn, Abigail Ruhman

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Carrie Levine: , I think it's important to think about choices and consequences here, and I think election administrators are in a position to clearly communicate that – what were they able to do in 2020 with that money that they won't be able to do in 2024 without it? You know, what are the choices and consequences that election officials are facing, and they need to communicate that not just to the lawmakers who set their budgets but to their communities.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]

Brianna Lennon: Welcome to High Turnout Wide Margins. This is Brianna Lennon. I'm the County Clerk for Boone County, Missouri, and with me is my co-host –

Eric Fey: Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri.

Brianna Lennon: And today we're going to be talking about elections funding, the prognostications of elections funding moving into 2024, and why it's so important that we have a really good, robust pool of resources as we go into a presidential election year especially after 2020. So today, we are talking to two folks. We’re really excited to have Ben Hovland today.

Ben Hovland: Thanks for having me. Great to be here.

Brianna Lennon: And we also have a special guest from Votebeat, and I'll have her introduce herself too.

Carrie Levine: Hi, I'm Carrie Levine. I'm a Story Editor at Votebeat. I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Brianna Lennon: So, Ben is a EAC Commissioner with the Election Assistance Commission, and so, he is intimately involved in the federal level funding. And Carrie has done really exhaustive work covering a number of elections issues, but a lot of election funding issues, as well. So, we have two experts on what the state of federal funding is for elections, and so, we're really excited to talk to them.

But we will first ask our regular question – How did you end up working in the election space, or what has surprised you the most as you've covered elections? Like is what you're covering now what you thought Votebeat would turn into last year?

Carrie Levine: I'm a longtime campaign finance reporter, and so I've got some experience with complicated systems that people don't understand very well. It was actually good prep for this.

And so, I think what we're covering is why things are playing out the way that they are, right? What people think versus what is correct and true, and also helping people understand all the things going on behind the scenes that aren't necessarily visible to them, but that explain things. And so, I think we're doing a pretty good job doing that. I've been really happy with it. And I also think we've had a chance to shine a spotlight on election administration – election administrators and how they're navigating these really complicated waters that nobody prepared them for. To talk about how they are answering questions from people who believe things that are not true, that are not correct, how they're dealing with the pressures on their office, and the creative solutions that they're finding to things like limited funding. And so I think we're really being – I think we're doing a good job shining a light on something that's complicated for people, and I really enjoy that.

Eric Fey: Awesome. Well, thanks, Carrie. And, Ben, if you would like to introduce yourself a little bit further, and of course, for regular listeners of the podcast, you know, Ben has been a guest before – guest Host actually. The only guest Host in the history of the podcast, and, of course, earn his election administration chops in Missouri, like any good election administrators should, I guess.

But Ben – we're here to talk about election funding, and so, after you kind of introduce yourself, maybe you'd be willing to set the stage for the state of federal funding for elections, where that stands, where the money that has come through and might be coming through the EAC, what the state of that is, and all that good stuff.

Ben Hovland: Yeah, thanks. Great to be back. It's, you know, that it is quite an honor to be the only the only guest Host ever. I think I need to get some kind of plaque or something to memorialize that. I am still a commissioner at the Election Assistance Commission, and we rotate. So, I'm the current vice chair, you know, and talking about this issue – about the funding of elections is always something near and dear to my heart. It feels like something that I've been involved in for quite a while, certainly since my time at the Senate, and the importance of it, you know, in this moment, with all the challenges that the community is facing, you know, I think that adequate funding is needed now more than ever.

And so, you know, as we look out at the landscape, you know, the federal funding cycles tend to run a little behind, you know, what is supposedly regular order, but, you know, we did pretty good this year with sort of an end-of-year funding. Just a few months of continuing resolution. And so, we saw with the Help America Vote Act [HAVA] funding, we saw an additional $75 million. I know the draft language had envisioned a higher number potentially – around 400 million. And so, I certainly know there was there was disappointment at that $75 million number. I think, to me, if there's a silver lining there it is that we've seen some regularity. I'm not sure we've totally figured it out, but at least there is some regularity that we're seeing.

Brianna Lennon: I think, speaking of that consistency, and predictability is really important. One of the things that I know has an effect on that, as well, and I'm not sure which one of you wants to speak to it, but there's also conversations among local election authorities that if some of that money could bypass the state, go directly down to the locals because while consistent funding is good, consistent, appropriation is also necessary. So, if you have a state that is not always funneling that money down to the local level, it can have an impact on things. Do one of you or both of you want to touch on that relationship? And if that has come up in conversations at the federal level?

Ben Hovland: I'm happy to jump in there. Certainly, you know, that is something we hear at the Election Assistance Commission. The House [of Representatives] in the last few appropriations cycles has had some language that talks about 50% “in cash” or “in kind” going to local election officials. I think, I think that language, to me makes sense around addressing the challenges of sort of the variations across the country – the top-down bottom- up dynamics. You have states like Louisiana where the state pays for poll workers. So, you know, of course, you have to take that into account. Or the states where, you know, at the state level, they buy the voting equipment or costs like statewide voter registration databases. Certainly, I think you could – I could see a scenario where you certainly are getting credit for sort of allocating those, but we do hear about the needs at the local level pretty consistently. And, you know, again, not all states have passed down that money equally.

I also think it's part of a bigger conversation, you know, really, to me, you know, it's how are we funding elections at all levels of government? And again, this varies around the country, but there's a federal piece – I believe that to be the case – there's a federal portion of the ballot. We've been reminded that it's a national security issue in recent years. So many of the challenges coming from the national conversation. But clearly, it's also a state issue and a local issue. And again, depending on where you're at around the country, you know, for the most part, that burden falls on local governments to pay.

In some cases, you know, we hear from election offices, who are wholly funded by fees they charge for other services – for land recording or otherwise, and so, you know, I think there's really a need to look, you know, I like the examples that I've heard about, you know, basically the real estate of the ballot, you know, the portions of the ballot and, and paying for your portion, whether that's through a chargeback mechanism or something else, you know, I do think we need to look at that and think about it holistically across all levels of government.

Carrie Levine: Yeah, it's really interesting, and I want to jump a little bit off what Ben said – about kind of the decentralized nature of American elections and how it can be hard to figure out how much elections really cost. I've tried a few times, and everyone accounts for it differently, everyone talks their expenses differently, the people who work on elections differently. So, it's really hard. There have been some good attempts to get a handle on this. I know, MIT Professor Charles Stewart – who's kind of a noted expert – worked with some other experts in 2013 and estimated the local election department spent about $2.6 billion in 2012 On election administration. And now we have advocacy groups like the Brennan Center, and experts like the Bipartisan Policy Center, who estimate that for election security and other costs, local election officials really need another $2 billion. And so the question of who pays the bill for this? And what really should be an election expense? is an open question. And that makes some of these discussions really hard to have.

I think the other thing that makes these discussions really hard to have and to fix on numbers is that election officials are really creative people. They're frugal people, and they pride themselves on finding really creative solutions to problems, and so, sometimes that means that you know they perform miracles, right? With the amount of money and the resources that they have, which also makes it hard to figure out how much something should cost.

You hear over and over that there needs to be predictable funding. You hear over and over that there needs to be consistent funding. You hear over and over that it takes time to do things like buy equipment, like drop boxes, or voting machines. And so, people need to know that this funding is coming down the pike on a reasonable timeline so that they can get these pieces in place. And so, these are all things that tend to get lost in the funding discussion.

The Department of Homeland Security has, for the first time, said that a certain percentage of their grants must be spent on election security, right? It's like 3% of $2 billion must be spent on election security, and, in some cases, those grants go directly to communities bypass the state. And that's a big deal, but it just isn't necessarily going to be enough money to meet everyone's needs.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Mid-break]

Eric Fey: But I think what perhaps we don't spend enough time talking about is what are we going to actually use that funding for, and I think Ben might be able to speak to this. In 2020, when Congress allocated money for elections and the EAC was dispersing – and I think the ESC did an admirable job dispersing it as quickly as they could – when this money is all of a sudden dispersed, you know, there's some federal guidelines and, you know, in accordance with HAVA, you can use on these types of things. But I worry that we don't always have a plan for how to use this money.

And I don't know, Ben, from your position on the on the EAC, if you can speak to that? If maybe you can speak to a little bit to what states have used the money for in recent years? And if maybe that would provide a roadmap as to what a consistent funding stream would be used for in the future?

Ben Hovland: Yeah, thanks for that. You know, I mean, I think that you're exactly right, and again, you know, because people are – well, one have different needs because of the state and local structures, or maybe in different places with like cyclical replacement of equipment – you know, we really have seen this variation, and, you know, really starting with the 2018 $380 million. You know, I used to talk about, you know, essentially, we were seeing election officials almost choose from a menu of options. We saw, we saw a lot of people replace old equipment, or paperless equipment. We saw a number of states, you know, replace their statewide voter registration database, or harden those systems, certainly in response to a lot of the cyber issues that came up in 2016. You know, we saw states like Illinois really lean into to the cyber navigator program and be able to provide a level of support and expertise to their counties, sort of on a regional basis. And so again, you saw a number of things.

I also think about, you know, recently I've heard, you know, a number of stories about people using the Cyber Security Infrastructure and Security Agency, CISA. They’re physical security advisors, to have those folks come out to your office, do an assessment of, you know, where there may be vulnerabilities with the physical security of your office, and we've seen those assessments result in significant local investment.

You know, I look at the landscape right now, and I think about, you know, the cyber issues haven't gone away. You know, that's certainly a source of cost. You know, voting equipment, of course, is still aging. You know, we throw on the challenges of combating myths and disinformation, which sometimes spirals into physical threats and harassment, and obviously, the toll that that takes both, you know, on the office, but just on individuals who are having to deal with that. You know, we're seeing the weaponization of records requests, again, that can be overwhelming for the office, and again, taxing on staff. And so much of that, you know, the main way in, or one way that you combat a lot of that is through voter education, but I think so often voter education gets backburnered because there isn't enough money for it. And so, to me, I see all of those challenges and all of those areas that need to be addressed in a space that was already underfunded, and that's pretty daunting.

Carrie Levine: I think, too, as laws change, right? We're in a period where state lawmakers are really legislating on elections. There's a lot of bills and a lot of new laws that local election administrators have to figure out how they can comply, and that means resources, right? They're spending time figuring that out. They're changing procedures, they're changing designs, they need more people. And so, I think as these laws passed, it's still hard to say how much of an impact they have on dollars, on resources, on time allotment. But that's something that becomes a factor, as well.

And so, I think it's easy to sometimes ignore things that don't look like there are new laws that say, “You must buy this,” right? It's easy to say, “Well, there's not $1 attached to this, but they can change the way that election administrators use the resources that they have, they can spread them more thinly.”

Eric Fey: Sometimes the federal grant money can be, can entail onerous record keeping or reporting, and I wonder if you can maybe speak to that point about, you know, how you feel about that? I don't know if there's anything that EAC can do about that. But, you know, for some election administrators that, and I know, I spoke to some, you know, especially folks from very small jurisdictions who say, you know, “That money be nice to have, but I just, I don't have any staff to, you know, do the paperwork on it" kind of thing.

Ben Hovland: Yeah, you know, again, as somebody who's thought about this for a while, you know, that is one of the challenges that you come back to, you know, certainly at the EAC, you know, I've been pleased that we've been able to, you know, we've seen a recent increase in funding that's gone a long way to building out our program, and part of that has been adding grant staff that are able to provide support to offices and, again, address a lot of those issues and challenges that come up. But when you start thinking about, you know – putting on my former hat as a Senate staffer, you know – trying to think about how you can do federal money and get it to the local level, and not have some of those burdens, I mean, certainly that that becomes a challenge. I mean, to me, that's part of why some of that House language made sense was it sort of dictates a certain amount of sub granting.

But the reality [is] that when you have, you know, 1000s and 1000s of jurisdictions, and particularly, you know, in the states that run elections at the municipal level, you're getting down to very small jurisdictions, who, no matter – even a bit, a pretty big, you know, piece some money – if you carve that up into 8,000 or so jurisdictions, you know, for those smaller towns or villages, their portion is going to be pretty small.

And so, then it to your point, Eric, if you say, “Okay, well, I've got to spend half of this” or, you know, whatever, “on the compliance piece,” and so, to me, that is why sort of language that includes the state and has, you know, has some provisions to make sure to include the locals or make sure, you know, the “in cash” or “in kind” has a lot of flexibility. But again, for those smaller rural jurisdictions, you know, it's not putting the burden of compliance, you know, totally on them, or directly on them.

Brianna Lennon: Are there? Are there things that we could be doing? I mean, should we be pushing our states harder? Should we be, you know, with everything so decentralized and piecemealed coming down, what should we be doing?

We can all – while all these conversations are happening in DC, and, you know, all this advocacy is happening – like on a day-to-day basis, what can we do to try to stave off some of these kinds of issues? And I don't know, I was trying to be optimistic. I'm trying to come up with an action item...

Carrie Levine: I think that, you know, election administrators have a really strong case to make for being generally good stewards of resources. You know, I was looking at the National Conference of State Legislatures data and something like 23 states have now banned private or philanthropic resources or restricted private and philanthropic resources for election costs, and that means that hundreds of millions of dollars that went to elections in 2020 are no longer available to election administrators.

So, as someone who early in her career really sat through a lot of municipal and county budget presentations, I think it's important to think about choices and consequences here, and I think election administrators are in a position to clearly communicate that – what were they able to do in 2020 with that money that they won't be able to do in 2024 without it? You know, what are the choices and consequences that election officials are facing, and they need to communicate that not just to the lawmakers who set their budgets but to their communities.

Because I think that these are voters, these are people who are counting on their elections being available to them, being accessible to them, and they need to know what's changing, and so, I think one thing election administrators have to do – and in the last few years, I think they've gotten pretty good at it – is talk about what they do, and talk about the consequences of the choices that are getting made. Because at the end of the day, those choices affect voters, they affect the people who have to show up and participate in these elections in order for us to have a functional democracy. They're not purely administrative choices with no consequences. And so, I think the more election administrators are able to communicate the consequences of these decisions to their communities, and to the lawmakers, then I think everyone goes into this with a common understanding of where we are.

And that's really important when you're making decisions about funding or anything else – is for everyone to know why those decisions matter, and, so I would say to election administrators – without you know, taking a side on the right number here, the right amount of money that should go to elections – it's really important for people that understand what that money means because it's hard to make good policy decisions, if there's not a common understanding of that. And election administrators are in a really great position to explain that to people.

Ben Hovland: I think Carrie makes a lot of really great points. I mean, I remember, you know, I think I had to testify in front of Congress in sort of the aftermath of ’20, and questions were asked about some of the, you know, some of that private funding, and, you know, I said, “Look, I didn't like that that money had to be provided. I think that it was a failure of government. I don't think our democracy and the infrastructure of our democracy should be dependent on, you know, the charity of billionaires.”

And so I guess, to me, you know, I don't agree with the prohibitions, and I think there's been some unintended consequences, but if you're going to do that, you know, if that is your decision at the legislature, well, you know, you still need to recognize why it was needed, you know, otherwise, you haven't solved “the failure of government portion of that,” and, and provide adequate funding.

I mean, I think, you know, with the creation or the designation of elections as critical infrastructure, there's the sector specific plan, and it says – and there's a funding section in the sector specific plan, it says, it's impossible to make an honest assessment of the election infrastructure subsectors risk, and the potential to mitigate that risk without an understanding of the chronic resource issues the subsector faces at all levels of government.

And I guess, you know, again, to me, that is a federal issue, it is a state issue, it is a local issue. And, you know, I think to some of the points that Carrie made earlier, you know, I think things that we can do about it? You know, again, I think election officials sort of Herculean efforts have bailed us out a lot, and so, you know, sort of being the squeaky wheel and telling the story and being honest about the challenges that we face, and I think highlighting the wins, you know.

We've been, I've been trying to do sort of more of that at the EAC but, you know, there is this real opportunity for this dual sort of, you know – two wins. There's both what the funding does itself, but there's also telling that story for the public confidence angle, and I think we can do more of that. You know, whenever, you know, people push me on why I have confidence in elections, you know, it's like,” Well, because I see all this work that has is done,” you know, “I know about these investments that have been made,” and I think that goes a long way, but again, not everybody gets to see that. So, I think, you know, telling that story to the public is a big piece of it.

Carrie Levine: I just [would] maybe add that large numbers can be really abstract, and so I think when we talk about election costs in the millions or hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, it's hard for people to understand. And so, local election administrators are a really important part of telling the story of what that money goes for, how it keeps our elections safe, how it keeps our elections accessible.

Ben Hovland: I agree with that, and I think that you know, to the degree that there's context, you know, I got some chuckle but some attention when I talked about how, you know, I told then Senator Blunt that that the EAC’s budget was less than Kansas City spends on potholes, and that got some attention, our budget went up.

You know, Kansas City also spent more on potholes. So I don't know if that was related, but it certainly kept that relevant. But again, you know, I think sometimes with the scale and scope of some of these things, I think, to Carrie's point, you know, sometimes the context matters, or comparison points matter, to sort of make that relevant to people in their daily lives.

Eric Fey: You've been listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Brianna Lennon, alongside Eric Fey. Thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our Managing Editor is Rebecca Smith. Our Managing Producer is Aaron Hay, and our Associate Producers are Abigail Ruhman and Katie Quinn. This has been High Turnout Wide Margins, and thanks for listening.

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After serving as Assistant Attorney General in the Missouri attorney general's office and as Deputy Director of Elections in the Missouri secretary of state's office, Brianna Lennon made the decision to pursue election administration at the local level. She was elected county clerk in Boone, Missouri, in 2018, making her responsible for conducting elections for more than 120,000 registered voters.
Eric Fey is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, who fell in love with election administration as a teenage poll worker. He has worked in the field for a decade, and became director of elections in 2015. He’s on the executive board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, and has observed elections in twelve countries, including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.