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COVID-19 election funds will supplement county money in November

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — The Rowan County Board of Elections expects to receive $222,000 in additional funds from the state to ensure safer in-person elections and accommodate what’s expected to be significantly more absentee ballots by mail this year.

Gov. Roy Cooper on June 12 signed into law a bill that provides funding for local elections boards and modifies some current elections laws in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The intent is to help local elections boards ensure safer in-person voting and reform current absentee ballot policies. The law, House Bill 1169, will allow voters to submit absentee ballot requests via email, fax or a new online portal. Additionally, it provides temporary flexibility in recruiting precinct officials and poll workers.

Brenda McCubbins, who serves as the Rowan County Board of Election director, said the county will receive $170,000 from the state from HB 1169. Additionally, the county has allocated $52,000 from a recent grant of $2.56 million from the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund. Those funds will allow for general election supplies, plexiglass shields at each table, floor spacing markers and hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes.

Baseline funding is dispersed based on each county’s tier status, which is determined by the North Carolina Department of Commerce’s 2020 County Tier Designations. Rowan County is considered tier two, which falls in between the most and least economically distressed counties.

The bill accounts for increased absentee ballot costs. McCubbins said that in 2016, about 4% of registered voters in the state used absentee ballots. This year, the state anticipates between 30-40% of registered voters will opt to vote absentee by mail. Thus, local elections boards are preparing for an increase in the costs of staff, postage and processing.

The bill also provides a $2.1 million match to receive nearly $11 million in federal aid from the federal CARES Act. It appropriates $424,000 to the State Board of Elections to establish an online portal for absentee ballot requests.

The state board could allocate any leftover funds to counties on a per-registered-voter basis for expenses eligible under the CARES Act. HB 1169 also provides a match for federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funds, which would be used to help with election security and technology.

But the additional funds are restricted in terms of how they can be spent, McCubbins said. She added that the county board is only aware of the total amount of funds, but has yet to receive any guidance on how to use the funds and when they will be dispersed.

“None of us really know where we will be with coronavirus by November,” she said, adding that this is time full of uncertainties that no one has ever gone through.

That’s why members of the county Elections Board advocated for more funding from the county’s 2020-21 budget, which was passed on June 16. The board requested $927,196 but was only approved for $722,410. Last year, the board was allocated a little more than $700,000.

County manager Aaron Church, who presented the budget to the Board of Commissioners in mid-May, called this year’s budget “tight” and “conservative” due to the impact from COVID-19. The budget includes an estimated 9.5% reduction in sales tax revenue, which amounts to a $2.5 million loss for the county.

George W. Benson, a member of the Board of Elections, said at a commissioners meeting on June 1 that the board is asking for funds to ensure safe, clean polls to make voting more accessible amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Not ensuring safety and health would “endanger our electoral process,” he said.

Rowan County Democrats Chair Geoffrey Hoy also spoke in support of the funding as the “legitimacy of the entire democratic process is based upon voting.”

McCubbins said the additional funds from the county would have helped with paying both part- and full-time staff.

Currently, the county board is preparing and processing requests for mail-in ballots. However, the board is still preparing ballots as candidates continue to file.

Additionally, the board is actively trying to recruit early one-stop voting and Election Day poll workers, she said. Anyone interested can visit rowancountync.gov/elections.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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