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A Pandemic In 2020 Meant New Costs For North Carolina Election Officials

Erin Keever

The 2020 election was like no other — the first in modern memory during a deadly pandemic. Election officials had to prepare for record-breaking turnout and adjust for social distancing and changes in how people would cast their ballot.

All that cost a lot of money. But how much did North Carolina’s recent election cost?

It’s difficult to tally how much the election cost statewide, but a good place to start is to look at Mecklenburg and Gaston counties.

After the March primary, it became clear to Gaston County elections director Adam Ragan that his 2020 budget of $1.2 million wouldn’t be nearly enough. There were a lot of new costs. Things like renting a skating rink for an early voting site — that was $15,000. Then there was the cost of safety equipment such as barrier shields and personal protective equipment.

"We had no idea. We didn’t know what was going to happen," Ragan said. "My concern and what was keeping me up is, how do we keep our voters safe? How do we keep our precinct workers safe? Our one-stop workers safe? Those were the things that were most concerning for me."

Elections staff also had to factor in the cost of frequent cleanings and as few common-touch surfaces as possible, which, in Mecklenburg County, meant a disposable pen/stylus provided to voters. Mecklenburg's Board of Elections turned to Charlotte’s biggest venues to host early voting sites, including Bojangles Coliseum, Bank of America Stadium and Spectrum Center. Mecklenburg was fortunate in that regard, as those spaces were free.

Another big line item this election: mail ballots. Mecklenburg County spent $190,000 on printing and postage to cover the 200,000 absentee-by-mail ballots requested this election. They were the two most expensive line items after staffing, which took up $1 million of the $3.3 million that Mecklenburg County spent to run the 2020 general election.

That budget was nearly double the amount of money it spent in 2016. Ragan said Gaston County sent out 24,000 absentee-by-mail ballots during the election, six times more than in a normal election year.

"When you factor in the postage related to that, the additional envelopes, the staff preparation time, that’s something we didn’t expect — as far as that kind of huge number — when we prepared our budget initially," Ragan said.

Election boards are funded by their counties. With extra costs on the horizon, Ragan started looking into what the federal CARES Act would pay for. That’s the stimulus bill Congress passed in March. It gave $400 million to election authorities around the country.

Gaston County received $316,000 in CARES Act funding. Mecklenburg County, which has the most registered voters in the state, received just under $865,000. In Union County, the election board received about $235,000 in CARES Act funds.

Karen Brinson Bell, executive director for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said county election boards across the state had largely the same experience. They could only use CARES Act money for new expenses or increased costs directly related to the pandemic.

For example, if the number of absentee ballots needed went from 100,000 to 300,000 during the election, Brinson Bell said, "then the CARES Act fund could be applied to the additional 200,000 envelopes that they had to order, because of the increase in absentee by-mail voting."

A number of other private grants were also available this year, including from the Center for Tech in Civic Life. The group distributed a $250 million grant from the private foundation of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Counties used the funding for poll worker staffing, polling site rentals, voter education, and drive-up voting.

Union County received $46,000 from the grant, but neither Gaston nor Mecklenburg counties applied for funds. The State Board of Elections received $3.2 million from the group, part of which went to give an extra $20 a day to poll workers at each early voting site in the state.

While the 2020 election was exceptional in many ways, county election boards were able to staff and equip themselves to change how they administered their elections. They used a combination of federal stimulus dollars and private grants to meet those needs, in addition to using their regular election-year budgets. Brinson Bell said this year more than any shows why proper funding is critical for a service that’s mandatory.

"It’s a service that goes out to every citizen of a county, every voter of a county. And we look a lot at not just safety this year, and also its security," Brinson Bell said. "And if you want to secure elections, you have to fund elections."

Gaston County’s Ragan is planning for the future already. He believes the next major election in two years will look a lot like it did in 2020. He has stored much of the safety equipment he purchased last summer, like the barrier shields, and expects to use them again in 2022.

Michael Falero is a radio producer and Charlotte native. Before joining WFAE in 2019, he worked as a producer for a number of local news podcasts based in Charlotte and Boston. He's a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop intensive on Cape Cod and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied global studies. His work has also aired on PRX Remix and WCAI.
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