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State, local officials push Congress to include $20 billion for elections in infrastructure funding

Election workers count mail-in ballots in Gwinnett County, Ga., for the state’s special election of both its U.S. senators on Jan. 5, 2021.
Photograph by Sue Dorfman/Votebeat

A bipartisan group of more than 300 state and local election administrators — ranging from Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenny to Broward County, Fla., Elections Supervisor Joe Scott — have asked Congress to include a large boost for election funding to its infrastructure package.

But the ask, for $20 billion over 10 years, comes a few days after the Biden administration proudly announced it had “made a deal” with a crucial group of Democratic and Republican senators, landing on a roughly $1 trillion package after weeks of frustrating, stop-start negotiations.

Election advocates with knowledge of the infrastructure negotiations say it isn’t too late to get their desired funding, even if it doesn’t come in the current package. They say specifics will be announced in the coming weeks. Spokespersons for the Senate and House appropriations did not immediately respond to requests for comments about the election-funding push.*

The officials’ letters, advance copies of which were released exclusively to Votebeat, were signed by groups of state and local elections officials, comprising 10 secretaries of state, 50 mayors, and 250 local elections officials. They reflect significant agreement from all ranks of government that elections infrastructure has been critically underfunded for decades.

“This federal funding would give local and state election offices the ability to replace outdated equipment, upgrade voter registration and election management systems, invest in physical, technological, and security infrastructure, and other essential needs,” the letter signed by the secretaries says. “The ten-year investment would ensure that election officials will be able to plan ahead and continue to execute the most secure, accurate, and accessible elections for eligible voters for years to come.”

It surprised many experts and onlookers that none of the multiple versions of the infrastructure package thus far has included a significant funding infusion for elections, which have been considered “critical infrastructure” under a move made in the waning days of the Obama administration in January 2017.

“If you don’t think about election administration day in and day out as we do, you may not realize that the systems, equipment, and facilities we need to administer our country’s elections are infrastructure,” the local and state election administrators wrote in today’s letter. “Challenges have only grown in recent years—from safeguarding databases from bad actors to maintaining equipment that is growing more and more outdated. And as with most challenges our communities face, the pandemic only added to the problem.”

The 2017 designation gave elections special consideration as a national security measure but also specifically labels elections as “infrastructure” so that they can be considered for federal infrastructure projects. In the designation, the Obama administration wrote that firming up 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.”

Since that designation was issued, Congress has passed hundreds of millions in funding to states for election upgrades — first after the cyber intrusions of 2016 and then in preparation for changes necessitated by the COVID pandemic ahead of 2020. But there has not been a firm commitment to consistent and predictable funding since Congress first began issuing large sums of grant money after the 2000 election. This, the letter-signers say, would change the game for election administrators across the country.

“Those who are closest to making our elections work are sending a clear message that now is the time for Congress to properly fund the critical election infrastructure that is the foundation of our democracy. Doing so will create budget certainty for election officials and set them, and voters, up for success, whatever challenges may come next,” said Tiana Epps-Johnson, executive director for the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which helped organize the letter signing campaign.

“Just as investing in roads, bridges, and broadband is vital to our country, so is investing in the security and modernization of our elections,” read the letter signed by the group of mayors, including Mayor Kate Gallego of Phoenix, whose city has been overtaken by news of Cyber Ninjas’ ongoing “forensic audit” of Maricopa County’s ballots and machines. “We strongly urge you to include funding for secure elections in the infrastructure package.”

*Correction, 11:45 p.m.: This article has been updated to make clear that the letter-signers may pursue election funding in a future infrastructure bill rather than the bipartisan package currently under Senate consideration.

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