Funding election upgrades is national emergency | Opinion

May 7, 2021 6:00 am

Voters wait in socially distanced lines while they are checked in by a poll worker before casting their ballots at Edison High School in Minneapolis Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

In our highly polarized country, there is at least one thing that public servants in red and blue states can still agree on: Our election administrators are — and have been — woefully underfunded for years.

“The State didn’t provide adequate funding, but the voters deserved better and deserved an opportunity to let their voice be heard,” an election administrator in Alabama told us about their experience in 2020. 

That sentiment echoed from coast to coast.

“The administration of elections has been poorly funded in general, this is especially true with regards to systems and technology,” an election administrator in California told us.

After initially allocating $400 million for election administration in the CARES Act last March, Congress notably declined to do more, even after a bipartisan outcry from local election officials over the summer. By August, election officials were left to “prepare for the worst.” 

Fortunately, additional private funding was able to help election departments make ends meet during the last election. The Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) COVID-19 response grant program provided approximately $350 million in funding to nearly 2,500 election jurisdictions across 49 states. 

In Minnesota, 28 local election offices received grant funding through the program — from Moorhead in the west to Dakota County in the east. Many of the Minnesota jurisdictions that received grants were smaller departments, including the cities of Albertville and Watertown.

A non-partisan organization backed by Republicans, Democrats and nonpartisan officials, CTCL made grants available to all local election offices responsible for administering election activities covered by the program. All told, over half of all grants nationwide went to election departments that serve fewer than 25,000 registered voters. 

What happens if that level of private funding is not available in the next election? Simply put, Congress must step up. Because private funding is not a long-term solution for election administration.

Election administrators and the work they do are part of our nation’s critical infrastructure. Literally. 

In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security officially designated election infrastructure as “part of the existing government facilities critical infrastructure sector.” In making this determination, DHS rightly noted that election infrastructure “is vital to our national interests, and cyberattacks on this country are becoming more sophisticated, and bad cyber actors — ranging from nation-states, cybercriminals and hacktivists — are becoming more sophisticated and dangerous.”

Minnesota election administrators are seeing increased demands on their teams as election security becomes more complex. “Increased technology and the security requirements that accompany it will require not only more staff, but also the recruitment of staff with more aptitudes, and increased on-the-job training. This will require us to expand our full-time staffing, and decrease our ability to rely as heavily on short-term temp staff,” said one Minnesota election administrator.

The answer? Election infrastructure must be funded like other infrastructure. Congress should allocate $20 billion over 10 years in the upcoming infrastructure package.

Administering elections is one of our nation’s most localized tasks, run at the county level in most states and at the municipal level in others. Past federal efforts have awarded election infrastructure funds nearly exclusively to states. 

Unfortunately, that meant that in many cases, only limited funds made it to the jurisdictions at the county and city level. That is why we recommend that two-thirds of the funding be allocated to local authorities and one-third to states.

Our ongoing conversations with local election officials have made clear that federal election infrastructure funding will bolster election security and resilience.  

Election departments will be able to make urgently-needed modernizations, including:

  • Replacing outdated voting machines
  • Upgrading voter registration databases and websites
  • Investing in election management equipment, including ballot sorters, envelope openers and stuffers, and ballot verification technology
  • Upgrading local election management systems, including software
  • Investing in physical infrastructure (including real estate) to allow local election jurisdictions to provide early, mail and in-person voting opportunities, and maintain secure facilities for storage of election equipment and materials
  • Bolstering systems to execute election audits   
  • Strengthening cybersecurity posture 

And this funding could not come at a more critical time. According to one recent study, as many as a quarter of local election officials in some of the nation’s largest voting jurisdictions are planning to retire before the 2024 election. This funding could help with staffing and training to manage and maintain our election systems just as election jurisdictions grapple with a wave of potential retirements and loss of institutional knowledge.  

Lack of consistent funding has been a persistent problem for election administrators whether they are in red or blue states — even in battleground states.  

“We always manage to deliver fair, accessible, accurate, and even safe elections. We don’t receive that back. Our stress is high, our pay is low, and support almost nonexistent,” an election official from North Carolina told us.

Private funding helped make ends meet in 2020. It was a Band-Aid, not a long-term solution. It is time for Congress to fund our local election departments like the critical infrastructure they are. Doing so would create budget certainty for election officials and set them, and voters, up for success, whatever challenges may come next.

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Tiana Epps-Johnson
Tiana Epps-Johnson

Tiana Epps-Johnson is founder and executive director with the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which is a team of civic technologists, trainers, researcher, election administration and data experts working to foster a more informed and engaged democracy, and helping to modernize U.S. elections.