The money was included in a $3 trillion coronavirus response bill that was passed Friday by the Democratic-led House. But it has no chance of moving forward. The Republican-led Senate opposes the bill, and the White House has vowed to veto it.
The most controversial aspect of the election funding section of the bill is another round of mandates that Democrats wish to place on states to ensure they have fair and safe elections at a time when crowded polling stations are a potential health risk.
The bill would require states to end requirements that voters get a legal excuse to request an absentee ballot, mandate 15 days of early voting and order states to mail a ballot to every voter during emergencies.
The Senate blocked similar requirements in a coronavirus relief bill in March. President Donald Trump's spokeswoman, Kayleigh McEnany, on Friday said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was “exploiting the crisis and pushing for mass mail-in voting even though we know it’s more susceptible to voting fraud.” The six states that use mass mail-in voting have not seen significant voter fraud.
Republicans, including Trump, have also claimed that Democrats would see a political advantage from the vote-by-mail expansion. “The Speaker’s bill also tries to use the virus as cover to implement sweeping changes to election laws that Democrats have wanted for years,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement.
Democrats and voting rights groups contend they simply want to protect the voting rights of all citizens, and note that repeated studies have found no widespread fraud and no partisan benefit to expanded voting. “It's an uninformed political calculation that certain elected Republican officials are making,” said Aaron Scherb of Common Cause.
The requirements are largely aspirational and a starting place for negotiation, said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a nonprofit advocating for campaign finance reform overhaul. “No. 1 is the money."
Congress included $400 million in election funding in a previous coronavirus relief bill, but estimates of the total cost to expand mail voting and make in-person voting safer have run as high as $4 billion. The previous failed bill also required that states receiving some of the new funding match it with 20% of their own election dollars — a tough requirement with state budgets cratering amid the pandemic.
Republican secretaries of state have pleaded for more money from Congress even as they've bristled against any mandates, saying they know best how to run their own elections. Democrats and voting rights groups hope to be able to get as much funds from the Senate as possible and expect to lose on the mandates.
“Then you will see efforts made on a state-by-state basis to make the process as good as it can be,” Wertheimer said. That's already begun, with numerous new lawsuits by Democrats and civil rights groups in several states seeking to increase access to the ballot box during the virus.
Republicans seem open to that inevitability as well. “It’s much easier to provide the funding to the states, to accommodate things like mail-in voting, and much more appropriate to do that than it is to federalize the elections and tell states how they have to do a job that they will do better than the federal bureaucracy will ever do,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters this week. “I think there’ll likely be more money available for that.”