By James E. Tatum,
Probate Judge of
As Probate Judge of Bullock County, I serve as the county’s chief election official and one of my most solemn obligations is administering free and fair elections for the citizens I serve. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put our most vulnerable citizens at risk, local elections officials are working day and night to make sure elections are safe, secure, and reliable – and that no one has to choose between their health and their vote.
We are deeply grateful for the generous state and federal support we’ve received to accomplish this monumental task. But with costs continuing to mount, state and county revenue shrinking, and with health experts predicting that COVID-19 will persist into the fall, additional federal funding is urgently needed in the next federal aid package to make sure we can fulfill the weighty obligation with which we’ve been entrusted.
Elections have national implications – but they are administered locally, by thousands of local elections officials across the country. In Bullock County, we’re fortunate to have an incredibly dedicated team of election staff and poll workers who do everything they can to help people vote safely and securely.
Earlier this year, Congress allocated $400 million through the CARES Act toward election funding. That is a vitally important start, but it is not nearly enough to ensure that our elections are secure and that voting is accessible to all who are eligible. More can and must be done to safeguard our democracy.
I was proud to join election officials across the country in calling on Congress to provide substantial funding in the next stimulus package so that we have the ability and resources to ensure that our voters can participate safely and with confidence in our elections.
One of the most significant challenges facing local elections officials will be to protect every vote and every voter, poll worker and staff member.
And the personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies, and other cleaning materials we need will cost money. These unexpected and unbudgeted expenses will increase the costs of our elections.
Additional costs will result from the significant challenges associated with distributing, processing, and counting an anticipated surge in absentee ballots.
Even under current voting rules, many more Alabamians are expected to cast absentee ballots, far more than what our existing election infrastructure was designed to process. In the last election, fewer than 55,000 of 1.7 million, or less than 3 percent, of voters cast an absentee ballot.
Now, with many election integrity measures in place, the State of Alabama is encouraging all eligible voters who are concerned about contracting or spreading the coronavirus to apply for and cast an absentee ballot in the runoff. This will result in a surge in absentee ballots for the upcoming election.
This is important because processing and counting absentee ballots requires different systems and processes than in-person voting. Once an absentee ballot is returned, election officials need to undertake a multistep process to ensure election integrity and accuracy. Some jurisdictions may need to purchase high-speed scanners or hire additional staff to process the uptick in absentee ballots and verify voters’ signatures. All of this will be costly.
In fact, Montgomery County Probate Judge J.C. Love recently requested an additional $87,000 for coronavirus-related election administration expenses associated with the upcoming election.
Bullock County, and many other rural counties, simply will not be able to afford these additional costs. And as we get ready for the July 14 runoff election, preparations for the August and November elections are also getting underway.
The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law conducted an analysis, which found that state and local election officials must begin making purchases now so that new processes and equipment can be tested well in advance of the fall election.
Local Alabama election officials face a daunting financial, logistical and personnel challenge of adapting their election system in a matter of months. It can be done, but Congress must act now if they want to make this a reality.
The decisions elected officials, regardless of party, make now will determine not just how we weather the impact of this virus, but also the kind of democracy we will have when we recover.
State and local election officials are doing their jobs, but we cannot do it alone. As Congress continues to negotiate the next financial stimulus package, it must provide additional funds that are urgently needed for us to protect every voter and every vote.
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