July 22, 2020

Hirono, Klobuchar, 29 Colleagues Call on Trump Administration to Help Secure Access to PPE to Conduct November Election Safely During Pandemic

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senators Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) led 29 of their colleagues in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Peter Gaynor urging them to take immediate action to provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and sanitizing supplies for election and poll workers—and voters—ahead of the November 2020 election.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that voters and workers at polling locations practice comprehensive hygiene, disinfecting, sanitizing, and physical distancing protocols as well as the use of face coverings. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, our country has faced widespread shortages of PPE. Not enough has been done by the Trump Administration to secure sufficient PPE. The letter cites reports from experts that indicate an additional $3.6 billion is necessary to make elections safe this year, and that states and localities without support from the federal government will bear a burden if no action is taken.

“We write to strongly urge you to take immediate action to ensure there is adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and sanitizing supplies for poll workers, election workers, and voters ahead of the November general election. We further urge you work to with state and local election offices to coordinate their access PPE and sanitizing supplies,” the Senators wrote.

The Senators continued, “It is critical that the Administration take concrete steps now to ensure the safety of election workers and voters in the November election. Elections are the bedrock of our democracy and we must ensure safe elections so that all voters can exercise their constitutional right to cast a ballot.”

In addition to Senators Hirono and Klobuchar, the letter was also signed by Senators Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

The letter can be found here and below:

Dear Vice President Pence and Administrator Gaynor:

We write to strongly urge you to take immediate action to ensure there is adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and sanitizing supplies for poll workers, election workers, and voters ahead of the November general election. We further urge you to work with state and local election offices to coordinate their access to PPE and sanitizing supplies. While we continue to press for greater access to mail-in voting for the November election, some voters, including voters with disabilities, those that need language assistance, and those without access to mail, will need to vote in person - raising the risk of increased spread and potential spikes in cases this fall.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, our country has faced widespread shortages of PPE. Health care workers, first responders, and many others on the front lines of the pandemic have been significantly impacted by the lack of this critical equipment. As cases of COVID-19 surge in many parts of the country, reports indicate serious shortages of PPE once again. While the urgent needs of workers on the front lines of this pandemic must be met immediately, the ongoing PPE shortage has also left other public workers, including poll workers and election workers, as well as voters, without sufficient access to the PPE that is necessary to keep them safe.

We are concerned that not enough has been done to secure sufficient PPE, despite our prior calls for President Trump to use the Defense Production Act of 1950 (DPA) to strengthen domestic manufacturing capacity and supply of PPE and other vital supplies during these unprecedented circumstances. The lack of federal coordination created a bidding war among states and local governments for the limited supply of PPE available, leading New York and other states to establish a regional consortium to buy PPE in May 2020. Federal leadership in acquiring and distributing PPE is urgently needed, and steps must be taken now to ensure Americans are able to safely exercise their right to vote in November. 

States and localities face challenges shouldering the financial burden of providing PPE for elections. As of June 4, 2020, 47 states and territories indicated that they would be using the $400 million in emergency election funding Congress provided in the CARES Act for purchasing PPE and sanitizing supplies. Across all states, PPE and sanitizing supplies were the most needed items. Experts have found that at least an additional $3.6 billion is necessary to ensure safe elections this year, and at the current funding level, the grants states have received are not enough to cover what experts say PPE and sanitary supplies will cost. At the same time, election officials have reported that they will also need assistance accessing consistent and reliable supply chains to purchase PPE.

Adequate PPE and sanitizing supplies are essential to protect the health of poll workers, election workers, and voters and to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at in-person voting locations and election work spaces. In the course of working an election, one poll worker can come into contact with a thousand voters or more and handle thousands of ballots. Some states have drastically limited the number of polling places during the pandemic, meaning that a single polling location may now serve tens of thousands of voters. This can create long lines and conditions that make it difficult to safely adhere to physical distancing guidance. During Wisconsin’s primary, only five polling places out of the usual 180 were open in Milwaukee, with one of these voting centers having more than 70,000 voters assigned to it. Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services reported more than 70 people who voted in person or worked at the polls tested positive for COVID-19.

We already know that states have experienced challenges working with PPE manufacturers and sellers and accessing adequate supplies of PPE for primary elections. In advance of Pennsylvania’s June 2, 2020 primary, county election officials reported that PPE “remains difficult or impossible to acquire,” and that the pricing of PPE manufacturers and sellers “is absolutely ludicrous and terms are generally unreasonable;” and they’ve “put in orders for masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and so forth—only to have them canceled by the distributor.” For the Wisconsin primary, the Wisconsin Election Commission indicated that the state would not provide poll workers with PPE because it was in such high demand for health care workers. The inability to provide PPE has also made it more difficult for states and jurisdictions to recruit poll workers. 

On June 22, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance for polling locations and voters to recommend more comprehensive hygiene, disinfecting, sanitizing, and physical distancing protocols as well as the use of face coverings. State and local election officials must have access to PPE and sanitizing supplies so that they can properly implement the CDC’s guidance.

It is critical that the Administration take concrete steps now to ensure the safety of election workers and voters in the November election. Elections are the bedrock of our democracy, and we must ensure safe elections so that all voters can exercise their constitutional right to cast a ballot. To that end, we ask that you provide by August 4, 2020, information on the steps you have taken and the steps you plan to take to work with state and local election offices to ensure they have access to PPE and sanitizing supplies for the November election.

Thank you in advance for your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely,