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

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

A federal audit found problems with 20% of Election Assistance Commission grants to aid states with 2020 voting amid a pandemic.

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

House Republicans first flagged concerns about the election grants in September 2020 regarding an expenditure in California. The GAO’s findings validate concerns that the problems run deeper than one state, said Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the ranking member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

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

A Clark County election worker scans mail-in ballots at the Clark County Election Department Oct. 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 it has been a bad actor, spending large sums of money with little transparency.”

The audit further determined the EAC allowed states to create 60 additional categories for spending the money rather than assigning expenditures to the assigned five categories.

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“GAO found issues with how states and the EAC categorized expenditures involving nearly 20 percent of the total reported spending nationwide,” the GAO report says. “As a result, in the EAC’s annual grant expenditure report to Congress, states’ expenditures for similar or the same items or activities could be included under multiple categories, making it difficult to consistently determine, by category, how states spent the grant funds.”

A voter eyes the opening of a ballot drop box before placing his ballot inside Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

A voter eyes the opening of a ballot drop box before placing his ballot inside Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

GOP House members first became concerned about how the CARES Act money for election grants was being spent because of a $35 million contract between the California Secretary of State’s office and SKDKnickerbocker, a Democratic political consulting firm that was at the same time working for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. California used $12 million from 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 microtargeting of voters,” Comer said. “To me, that’s what a political firm would do. Do we think they were microtargeting Republican voters?” 

A voting booth with sides blocked off with caution tape 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 blocked off with caution tape 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 can’t issue subpoenas or otherwise compel the release of information, did not specify issues in any other states. The audit was based on interviews with EAC officials and a review of public data.

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