GAO struggles to identify how 20% of 2020 federal voting grants were spent

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A federal audit revealed problems with 20% of Electoral Assistance Commission grants to help states vote in 2020 amid a pandemic.

When Congress approved the CARES Act, a COVID-19 relief program, the EAC received $400 million in grants, of which $326 million has been accounted for so far. The Government Accountability Office, a watchdog agency, looked at how the EAC spent and monitored grant money in a November report.

House Republicans first reported campaign subsidy concerns in September 2020 over an expense in California. The GAO findings validate concerns that the problems run deeper than a single state, said Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., a senior member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

A Clark County election worker scans mail-in ballots at the Clark County Election Department on October 20, 2020 in North Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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“The potential for abuse is very high,” Comer told Fox News. “The EAC is supposed to be a watchdog, but it turns out to have been a bad actor, spending large sums of money with little transparency.”

The audit further determined that the EAC allows states to create 60 additional categories to spend the money on rather than assigning spending to the five allocated categories.

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“GAO found issues with how states and the EAC categorized expenditures involving nearly 20% of total reported expenditures nationally,” the GAO report said. “As a result, in the annual report of EAC grant expenditures to Congress, state expenditures for similar or identical items or activities could be included in multiple categories, making it difficult to consistently determine, by category, how states spent grant funds.”

A voter watches the opening of a ballot box before casting their ballot inside Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020 in Seattle.  (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

A voter watches the opening of a ballot box before casting their ballot inside Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020 in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

GOP House members initially raised concerns about how CARES Act campaign grant money was being spent due to a $35 million contract between the California Secretary of State’s office and SKDKnickerbocker, a Democratic political consulting firm that concurrently worked for President Joe Biden. countryside. California used $12 million of EAC money to pay for the contract that was used in the “Vote Safe California” program.

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“California, when it contracted with SKDKnickerbocker, engaged in the microtargeting of voters”, Comer said. “To me, that’s what a political enterprise would do. Do we think they were microtargeting Republican voters?”

A voting booth with sides taped off to ensure social distancing at the Italian Heritage Center on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

A voting booth with sides taped off to ensure social distancing at the Italian Heritage Center on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

The sheer amount of money almost certainly means similar problems existed in other states, Comer said.

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The GAO, which cannot issue subpoenas or otherwise compel the disclosure of information, did not specify issues in other states. The audit was based on interviews with EAC officials and a review of public data.

Comer asked EAC Inspector General Brianna Schletz to further investigate how campaign grants were spent in 2020 in a letter he signed with Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., a senior member of the House Administration Committee, and Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., a senior member of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Operations governmental.

It might take a new majority in Congress to get to the bottom of this, Davis said.

“When I’m chairman of the House Administration Committee, we’ll make sure the money sent to the states is spent properly, and most of the time it is. But California spent $35 million for a company working for Joe Biden,” Davis told Fox News. “There are other cases like California, but I also want to know what the EAC is going to do about California. That’s why we need an inspector general at the EAC to do his work and give us answers.”

Davis expressed frustration with former EAC Inspector General Patricia Layfield, who retired earlier this year. Layfield wrote a letter in February saying the California contract with SKDK may have been inappropriate, but took no further action.

However, Mona Harrington, executive director of the Election Assistance Commission, expects a review of the California case by the inspector general.

“Routine audits by the Inspector General of the Election Assistance Commission on CARES Act grants are ongoing in many states, including California. As with any IG report, this information will be released when completed. “, Harrington told Fox News.

Under the CARES Act grant reporting rules, states have submitted 20 day reports after their 2020 primaries and general election. These reports were submitted to the EAC and also sent to the relevant congressional committees.

“EAC staff worked diligently and quickly to manage an additional $400 million in grants to states from Congress to respond to the pandemic during an election year,” Harrington continued. “The agency was able to distribute this funding within 30 days and provide significant technical support to states without additional funding to respond to the pandemic or assist with the administration of CARES Act funding.”

The grants were to be used by states to assist with in-person voting; mail/postal voting; recruitment and training of poll workers and contingency planning.

The GAO report says states “created 60 additional expense categories” that included “personal protective equipment and equipment for polling places”; and “contractual services”.

In addition, the audit indicates that the EAC’s electronic system allows states “to omit or miscalculate expenditure totals” when submitting reports to the commission and that “some states did not include amount for total expenditure”.

The EAC’s response to the GAO appears in the report and states, “Because the EAC’s CARES Act Grant Program is still open and active, we anticipate additional reports from states through March 2022, when the last grant will be closed. This with our Independent Inspector General Funding Audits will report on all remaining CARES Act grant expenditures.”

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