Presidential battleground states weigh more election funding

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Ahead of the 2024 presidential election, officials in several battleground states have proposed boosting funding to add staff, enhance security and expand training within election offices that are facing heavier workloads and heightened public scrutiny.

The potential extra funding comes as many election offices are grappling with a wave of retirements and a flood of public records requests, stemming partly from lingering election distrust seeded by former President Donald Trump in his 2020 defeat.

In South Carolina, host of one of the earliest presidential primaries, almost half of county election directors have resigned in the last two years, said state Election Commission Executive Director Howard Knapp.

The unprecedented turnover has created an “enormous knowledge and competency gap,” Knapp said, prompting a budget request for millions of additional state dollars to boost staffing and training. Without the funds, Knapp warned the gap will grow and elections will be “severely impacted.”

“I can’t control county directors leaving,” said Knapp. He added, “What I can control is this agency’s ability to deliver quality training to the counties so that it doesn’t matter who is in the chair, they will have an established training program that they can take themselves and they can impart.”

Elections officials, governors and lawmakers in states that hold early primaries or play pivotal roles in the presidential election, including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wisconsin, also have proposed funding increases. In many of those states, lawmakers are still working on the final budget.

Time is of the essence. Most annual state budgets take effect in July, meaning they will encompass presidential primaries occurring in the first half of 2024. Once funding is approved, election officials will need time to hire and train employees and purchase new security and voting equipment.

Georgia, where a grand jury has been investigating whether Trump and his allies illegally meddled in the 2020 election, is one of about a dozen states where lawmakers already have passed a 2024 budget. The Republican-led General Assembly added $427,010 to hire two investigators, one administrative assistant and an executive director for the State Election Board.

One state still weighing more election spending is Arizona, which became a focal point for election challenges and conspiracies after Trump narrowly lost the state in 2020.

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat who previously served as secretary of state, has proposed an $11 million increase for a new election task force. The panel, which held its first meeting earlier this month, is expected to release recommendations by November on ways to standardize election practices, update election equipment and security guidelines, and provide training to local workers.

Arizona's Democratic Secretary of State Adrian Fontes is pushing for an additional $3.1 million in election-related spending, in part to add six employees to help train and certify election workers and a new chief information security officer to confront cyber vulnerabilities in election systems.

There is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting equipment in the 2020 elections. Yet distrust about U.S. elections persists among Republicans, fueled by Trump allies who have been traveling the country highlighting theoretical vulnerabilities.

In the past three years, almost every election office across the country has seen an increase in the number of public records requests, said Tammy Patrick, chief executive officer for programs at the National Association of Election Officials.

South Carolina experienced a 500% increase in election-related public-records requests, driven largely by election skeptics submitting model language drafted by out-of-state conspiracy groups, Knapp said. The state election commission is seeking $3.2 million to help establish a new training division and enhance technical support. Knapp also wants about $1.2 million to hire seven staff members, including a public information officer to respond to media, voters and interest groups.

Voting advocates said strong training is especially important in a hostile environment where bad-faith actors may twist instances of incompetence or irregularities to undermine election integrity.

Cynthia Holland, who oversees elections for Aiken County, an expansive rural county in the western part of South Carolina, said the funded training would be a “blessing.” She estimated that her four-person office has spent over 100 hours since November 2020 responding to records requests.

“It’s enough time that it puts us behind on our work that we’re supposed to be hired to do," she said.

Officials in Nevada, Oregon and Wisconsin also have proposed funding increases to hire additional staff to handle public requests for election records and information.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, proposed $1.9 million over the next two fiscal years to hire 10 staff for a new Office of Election Transparency and Compliance to handle requests and complaints. Until recently, the Wisconsin Election Commission only had a single attorney to process complaints and one public information officer.

“Unfortunately, this structure has proved inadequate to address the hundreds of thousands of questions and concerns, along with hundreds of records requests and complaints," the election commission wrote in its budget request.

Separate budget plans by North Carolina’s Democratic governor and Republican-led House both include money to hire more regional staff to help county election boards with technology, security and other needs.

Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is seeking to boost the secretary of state’s overall budget by nearly $10 million, including a $3 million increase for branch offices and $1.2 million to expand staffing for seven mobile offices. But the increase is substantially less than the $100 million annually that Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson estimates is needed to “address historic disinvestment in Michigan elections."

About three-fourths of local election officials across the U.S. say their budgets need to grow over the next several years, according to a recent Brennan Center for Justice survey of 852 local election officials. The nonpartisan democracy-focused policy institute highlighted the need for more spending to hire poll workers and office staff, replace voting equipment and improve physical and cyber security measures.

“Things are strained – there’s no question about it. The challenges in the elections field keep mounting,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the Brennan Center’s elections and government program. “There’s a lot of concern in the elections community about what can be done in the remaining 18 months to make sure that our elections are as strong and secure as possible.”

___

Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Missouri. AP reporters across the U.S. contributed to this report.

Pollard, Cappelletti and Venhuizen are corps members for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.