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The new challenge for state election officials? How much hand sanitizer is enough

An election worker opens envelopes containing vote-by-mail ballots for the August 4 Washington state primary at King County Elections in Renton, Washington on August 3, 2020.

Jason Redmond | AFP | Getty Images

Election officials in states across the nation are wrestling with a critical issue for the upcoming presidential contest: how much hand sanitizer will be enough for each polling place on Nov. 3. 

The coronavirus pandemic has already disrupted voting in 2020, forcing state officials across the country to institute new procedures and policies meant to maintain turnout while keeping voters safe. 

Several states have expanded vote-by-mail access, providing an alternative for those who fear that voting in person will increase their risk of contracting or spreading the virus. 

But to protect those who choose to vote in person on November 3rd, states have been planning for months to deliver personal protective equipment like hand sanitizer and masks to individual polling sites. 

The challenge, officials say, is determining how much PPE to send to each site. 

There is no single metric that states are using to figure out the appropriate amount of PPE. In the United States, elections are run at the local or state level, meaning there is considerable variation from state to state on administrative decisions. 

The distribution methods

There is also no single way to disperse PPE to polling sites. Earlier this year, some states like Indiana and Iowa deployed the National Guard to distribute supplies across drop-off points statewide. County officials were then responsible for picking up the PPE and transporting it themselves to polling sites. 

It’s not yet clear whether this will be the case for the upcoming general election, state officials from both Indiana and Iowa told CNBC, but the option remains on the table. 

In Arkansas, the staff of Secretary of State John Thurston will “package those supplies and deliver the items to the counties,” said Kevin Niehaus, public relations director.

“Once the county has the PPE, those county election officials are responsible for getting it to each polling site,” Niehaus added.

In other states like California, Delaware, Minnesota and South Carolina, PPE will be packaged with normal election materials like voting sheets and machines.

Additional PPE will be made available separately in some Delaware counties like New Castle.

“You can either pick up the gloves/masks/gowns/hand sanitizer here at the government center (our town hall), or we have delivered some to our local township police stations, fire departments,” Brian Cunningham, New Castle County director of strategic communications, said in an email. “Sometimes the county executive likes to deliver the materials himself. Depends on his bandwith [sic].”

Minnesota counties are splitting up PPE deliveries by size, with county staff distributing larger items like plexiglass shields and poll workers distributing smaller items like tape, masks, hand sanitizer and pens to polling sites, according to Kathryn Smith, elections manager for Minnesota’s Olmsted County.

Elections Chief Inspector Mary Magdalen Moser runs a polling location in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in full hazmat gear as the Wisconsin primary kicks off despite the coronavirus pandemics on April 7, 2020.

Derek R. Henkle | AFP | Getty Images

For its earlier elections, Michigan’s Secretary of State’s Office sent out PPE in “state delivery trucks” and via UPS and plans to do the same in November, according to Jake Rollow, director of communications and external affairs for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. 

But distributing the PPE is just one of the challenges. State election officials are also trying to determine how much equipment to get to each county, a figure that depends on the amount of funding available and a range of other factors. 

In March, Congress allocated $400 million to the Election Assistance Commission to provide states with grants “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, for the 2020 Federal election cycle.” 

According to a breakdown of the funding, almost all states and territories, as well as the District of Columbia, received either the amount they requested or slightly more in funding from the CARES Act.

Most states are not yet sure how much of this funding will specifically go toward PPE, but initial costs reveal that it can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Minnesota has spent over $330,000 on PPE for its upcoming elections in August and November, according to Risikat Adesaogun, press secretary and deputy communications director at the Minnesota secretary of state’s office. That sum provides more than 50,000 masks for poll workers, more than 225,000 disposable masks for voters who show up without one, and 8,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, Adesaogun said. 

Election officials in Vermont expect to spend about $60,000 on PPE for the November election, said Eric Covey, chief of staff to the secretary of state’s office, adding that he expects another $10,000 to be spent on protective shields.

State and local officials have been urging Congress to appropriate more money, contending funds are rapidly depleting

“It’s looking like I spent close to 60% of my CARES Act funding on the primary election,” Jared Dearing, executive director of the Kentucky State Board of Elections, said late last month. “To put that in context, we are expecting turnout to go from 30%, which was a record high for a primary election, to as much as 70%.”

But as negotiations over the latest coronavirus stimulus bill intensify, Republican and Democratic lawmakers remain at odds over election spending. 

House Democrats in May proposed an additional $3.6 billion to go toward helping state and local officials carry out elections this year. But the Republican-led Senate proposal had no election funding, and it is unclear if the two sides have moved closer in the latest talks. 

How much PPE is enough?

Largely because this is the first time a presidential election will be carried out this way, there’s no uniform standard on how much PPE each polling site receives. 

Some states are basing the amount of PPE needed in November on data from past elections that show how many people came out to the polls to vote in person.

“Each County Clerk, Election Coordinator, and/or county election commission will make this determination based largely on previous vote counts in the prior presidential election,” said Executive Director Chris Villines and legal counsel Lindsey French of the Association of Arkansas Counties in an email to CNBC. The AAC is responsible for getting the PPE to each individual polling site throughout Arkansas’ 75 counties.

But the challenge with that method is that turnout numbers from past elections may not correlate with the number of people who will come out to vote in person in November. This year’s in-person voting numbers might be substantially lower as states expand vote-by-mail access and encourage people to avoid showing up at the polls unless absolutely necessary. 

Minnesota officials are also using previous voter turnout estimates to gauge how much PPE to send each polling site. 

“In partnership with the Secretary of State, a working group determined estimates for quantities of each item. Those estimates get a little complex in terms of a formula but we think it is a good starting point,” said Michael Stalberger, director of property and environmental resources at Blue Earth County in Minnesota. 

“For example, the state has provided 8,000 gallon bottles (with spray pumps) of hand sanitizer for all the polling places across the state. Each polling place has been allocated a minimum of two bottles (so voters can sanitize as they enter and exit the polling place), and additional bottles are allocated with the goal of having minimum of one bottle per 500 voters,” Stalberger added.

Other Minnesota counties like Olmsted County are following “recommendations from the MN Office of Secretary of State, CDC, and MN Department of Health in determining what to send out to our polling sites,” Smith, Olmsted’s election manager said. 

Some counties in Ohio are setting aside specific amounts of PPE for each poll worker. 

“We are giving each worker 1 face shield, 2 masks, 6 pairs of gloves and a ton of hand sanitizer,” said Brian Sleeth, Director of Elections in Ohio’s Warren County, adding that there will be extra PPE available onsite.

Despite the uncertainties, officials across the country say they are committed to providing the safest polling places possible come November.

“Preserving the voting rights of Vermont voters, while protecting the health and safety of every voter, Town Clerk, and election worker remain our top priorities,” said Covey from the Vermont secretary of state’s office. 

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