Committee on House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil, R-Wisc., said that state and local governments should be responsible for funding their election offices.

Committee on House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil, R-Wisc., said that state and local governments should be responsible for funding their election offices. ALLISON JOYCE/AFP via Getty Images

Counties want more money for elections. Washington is unlikely to provide it.

“I just don't want anybody to walk out of here thinking that all of a sudden a massive flow of funds is going to come forward,” a House committee chairman told county officials.

One after the other, country officials said they needed more federal funding to keep their election workers safe, prevent cybersecurity breaches and deal with what will no doubt be a tumultuous election year.

The comments were made to the Republican chairman of the House committee with jurisdiction over election laws. But Wisconsin Rep. Bryan Steil did not appear supportive of more funding. 

“I just don't want anybody to walk out of here thinking that all of a sudden a massive flow of funds is going to come forward,” he told county officials at the National Association of Counties annual conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

Reflecting the Republican push to reduce the nation’s deficit, Stiel told officials that the federal government “doesn't have extra money lying around right now.” He added that state and local governments should be responsible for funding the offices, in part because it would allow local governments to determine how to best run elections. “You should be able to run your elections as you see fit.”

Steil said that if the federal government took on more of the cost of running elections, it would come with strings. “You're going to see a standardization of the process,” he said. Receiving more federal funding would “get you far more red tape.”

“You may love your mail ballot process. You may not like your mail ballot process,” he said. “But that should be a decision for the people of the great state of Florida.” 

Funding for elections security, as reported by The Hill, is one of the “sticking points” between congressional negotiators as they try to reach agreement on 12 appropriations bills to once again avert a partial government shutdown on March 1.

Unsurprisingly, several county officials pushed back on Steil’s funding comments.

Christine Walker, the clerk of Jackson County, Oregon, said, “We have this laundry list of things that we can do to better secure our physical security or facilities, as well as the cybersecurity realm. But we don't have the funding to be able to do those projects.”

Walker’s county funds elections through property records fees. “We get no funding from the state, no funding from the federal government to conduct those elections,” she said. The county's fees have been “depleted because of the high mortgage rates. We actually had to cut employees this last year leading up to a major election.”

New Mexico’s Santa Fe County Clerk Katherine Clark told Steil that she had “concerns” about his comments on funding.

“There's increasing election complexity and therefore there's more operational complexity,” she said. “There's more need for higher competencies and skills. We are not seeing the funding for training or the ability to pay more people.” 

Having more observers at polls would decrease claims about elections being run improperly, she added. “We need to actually create space for those observers to stand.” 

The federal government, she continued, should “recognize that elections need infrastructure just like all other infrastructure. We need higher pay or apprenticeship programs, just like every other civil service office.”

Clark noted that federal infrastructure dollars could not be used for election offices, even though “we had just gone through a very difficult election cycle.”

Steil told county officials at the conference that he wants to eliminate funding for county elections offices that come from private groups, which he referred to as “Zuckerbucks.” The term comes from the objections from the right that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan donated funds to the left-leaning Center for Tech and Civic Life. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the group gave local election offices grants in 2020 ranging from $5,000 to $19 million to support their operations. 

In Wisconsin, the bulk of the funding that the state received from the group went to the five largest cities—Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine. Republicans contend that that gave Democrats a competitive advantage in the 2020 election.

Private funding “gives people less faith and confidence in the operations of the election,” Steil said. Referring to the previous night’s Super Bowl, he continued, “if I told you last night that the referees were paid for by a tech billionaire in San Francisco, or if it was paid for by a famous musician, you would have questioned the outcome of the game.”

According to NCSL, 27 states prohibit, limit or regulate the use of private or philanthropic funding to run elections. If approved, a constitutional amendment on April’s ballot would add Wisconsin to that list.

Steil said there are other ways that the federal government can improve confidence in the integrity of elections. A bill he has proposed would give elections offices access to a federal Social Security database recording deaths so that county officials “can maintain clean voter rolls.”

Jack Sellers, chairman of Arizona’s Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, discussed steps his local government has taken to depoliticize the elections process. 

Depoliticizing running elections “would make life a lot easier” for elections offices, he said, because “people get so emotional about the voting process” after former President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of fraud in the 2020 elections.

Instead of continuing to have the county’s elections director report to the Board of Supervisors, the board decided to have the director report to the county manager so elected officials are not supervising elections.

“An elected official really should be as far away from the election process as possible,” Sellers told the other county officials. “We've worked very hard to have a very clear, clean, transparent process. Answer all questions that come to us. Trying to take the emotion out of that process would make things a lot more secure.”

Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at Follow @Kery_Murakami

NEXT STORY: On take two, House impeaches DHS secretary