COLUMBIA (AP) - Ahead of 2024's presidential election, officials from several battleground states are proposing to increase funding for the hiring of staff, enhancing security, and expanding training in election offices, which face a heavier workload and increased scrutiny.
This extra funding could come at a time when many offices are dealing with retirements, and an influx of requests for public records. These issues stem partly from the distrust that lingered in the election process after Donald Trump's defeat in 2020.
Howard Knapp, executive director of the state Election Commission, reported that in South Carolina, which hosted one of the first presidential primaries, nearly half of county election directors resigned within the past two years.
Knapp claimed that the unprecedented turnover had created a 'huge knowledge and competence gap', which led to a request for additional state funds in millions of dollars, both for staffing and training. Knapp said that without the additional funds, the gap would grow and elections would be "severely affected."
Knapp said that he could not control the departure of county directors. Knapp added: 'What I control is the ability of this agency to provide quality training to counties, so that no matter who is the chair, the county officials will have a training program they can follow and impart.
In addition, officials from the electoral offices, governors, and legislators in states with early primaries, or that play a pivotal role in the presidential elections, such as Arizona, Georgia Michigan, Nevada New Hampshire North Carolina, and Wisconsin, have also proposed an increase in funding. Many of these states are still working out the details of their final budget.
The time is critical. The majority of state budgets are approved in July and will cover the presidential primaries in 2024's first half. Election officials need time to hire new employees, train them and buy voting and security equipment once funding has been approved.
Georgia, where the grand jury is investigating whether Trump's allies have illegally interfered with the 2020 elections, is among about 12 states that already passed a budget for 2024. The Republican-led General Assembly spent $427,010 on the hiring of two investigators, an administrative assistant, and a director for State Election Board.
Arizona is one state that still has a lot of election spending to do. It became the focal point for challenges and conspiracy theories after Trump lost Arizona by a narrow margin in 2020.
Katie Hobbs (a Democrat, who was previously secretary of state) has proposed an increase of $11 million for a new task force on elections. The panel held its first session earlier this month and is expected to make recommendations on how to standardize elections practices, update voting equipment and security guidelines and provide training for local workers by November.
Arizona's Democratic Secretary-of-State Adrian Fontes wants an extra $3.1 million for election spending. This includes adding six employees who will help train and certify poll workers, and a chief information security officer that will address cyber vulnerabilities within election systems.
No evidence exists of widespread fraud, or of the manipulation of voting machines in 2020. Republicans are still distrustful of the U.S. election system, fuelled by Trump's allies who travel around the country to highlight theoretical vulnerabilities.
Tammy Patrick is the chief executive officer of programs for the National Association of Election Officials. She said that in the last three years almost all election offices across the nation have seen an increase of the number of requests for public records.
Knapp reported that South Carolina saw a 500% rise in requests for public records related to elections, largely due to election skeptics who submitted model language written by conspiracy groups from out-of-state. The state election commission wants to raise $3.2 million for a new division of training and technical support. Knapp wants to spend about $1.2million to hire seven employees, including a Public Information Officer to deal with the media, voters, and interest groups.
Voting advocates say that strong training is particularly important in hostile environments where bad-faith agents may use instances of incompetence and irregularities to undermine the integrity of elections.
Cynthia Holland, the Elections Supervisor for Aiken County in western South Carolina said that the training funded by the state would be a blessing. She estimated that since November 2020, her four-person staff has spent more than 100 hours responding to record requests.
She said, "It takes so much time that we are behind in the work for which we were hired."
Nevada, Oregon and Wisconsin officials have also proposed an increase in funding to hire more staff to deal with public requests for information and election records.
Tony Evers, a Democrat from Wisconsin, has proposed spending $1.9 million in the next two years on hiring 10 employees for a new Office of Election Transparency and Compliance, which will handle complaints and requests. The Wisconsin Election Commission had only one attorney who handled complaints, and a public information officer until recently.
In its budget request, the Election Commission wrote: "Unfortunately, the structure we have in place is not adequate to deal with the hundreds of thousands questions, concerns and requests for records, as well as the hundreds of complaints and record requests."
Both the Republican-led House and the Democratic Governor of North Carolina have separate budget plans that include funding to hire additional regional staff in order to assist county election boards, including with security, technology and other needs.
Michigan's Democratic Governor. Gretchen Whitmer wants to increase the overall budget of the Secretary of State by almost $10 million. This includes a $3-million increase for branch offices, and $1.2-million to expand staffing at seven mobile offices. The increase is less than the $100,000,000 annually estimated by Democratic Secretary of state Jocelyn Benson to be needed in order to "address the historic disinvestment" in Michigan elections.
According to a Brennan Center for Justice poll of 852 local officials, three-fourths believe their budgets will need to increase over the next few years. The nonpartisan policy institute focused on democracy highlighted the need to increase spending for hiring poll workers and office personnel, replacing voting equipment, and improving physical and cyber security.
There's no doubt about it: 'Things have become strained.' Lawrence Norden is the director of Brennan Center's Elections and Government Program. There's concern among the election community as to what can be achieved in the next 18 months in order to ensure that our elections are secure and strong.
Lieb reported from Jefferson City in Missouri. This report was compiled by AP journalists from across the U.S.