Introduction and summary
In the aftermath of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Congress set its sights on passing legislation to improve election security by setting minimum standards for election systems and providing states with dedicated federal funding to improve election security. During the 2016 election, 44 states had voting systems that were more than a decade old; this severely compromised the security of U.S. elections—and by extension, national security—and left America’s democracy vulnerable to Russian interference.1 To put this timeline into perspective, these voting systems were put in place before the first iPhone was announced and were still in use when the iPhone 7 was released.
When the Trump administration’s politicization of election security eventually led to obstruction of comprehensive election reform legislation, Democratic leaders in Congress turned their focus to providing states with federal grants to improve election security through annual appropriations cycles. Providing states with election security grants through the appropriations process has remained the primary strategy for improving election security and has predominantly placed states in charge of determining how to improve the security of federal elections.
Since 2018, Congress has provided all 50 states; Washington, D.C.; and the territories with approximately $880 million in federal election security grants through the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), which the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has distributed for improvements in election security and administration.2 States received a combined total of $380 million in 2018, $425 million in 2020, and just $75 million earlier this year and have reported their spending annually to the EAC.3 As of March 2022, states have spent more than $482 million, or approximately 53 percent of the 2018 and 2020 disbursements.4 But spending levels have varied greatly across states, with some having spent all or nearly all their funding—such as Indiana and West Virginia—and others having spent none or very little, such as Hawaii and Maine.
Spending levels have varied greatly across states, with some having spent all or nearly all their funding—such as Indiana and West Virginia—and others having spent none or very little, such as Hawaii and Maine.
The aim of federal election funding should not solely be to help states modernize their current fleet of systems; it should also be to help them sustain continual modernization and upgrades so that they do not find themselves again in a situation similar to 2016, when election infrastructure was so outdated that it left America’s democracy vulnerable. At the same time, election needs have grown since 2016, and election officials need significant funding to counter disinformation and misinformation, improve election administration and accessibility, and protect election officials and workers in the wake of a flood of threats and violence since the 2020 election cycle.
Despite all these factors, some congressional Republicans have claimed that states do not need more federal assistance for elections. These claims are underpinned by two misconceptions about states’ election needs based on the following facts: 1) Overall, states have spent only about half of the funding they received in 2018 and 2020; and 2) Some states have spent only a nominal amount of their funding.
As this report will show, it’s easy to debunk these misconceptions by looking at the important facts and narratives behind the data and data sets, which paint a more accurate picture of what state spending has looked like. Importantly, in addition to these narratives and data, election officials, from both political parties, and experts continue to advocate for more federal assistance because state and local governments need not only more assistance but a reliable and sustainable assistance.5 Estimates for what it would cost to adequately fund U.S. elections over the next decade vary from a few billion dollars to as high as $50 billion.6 Even with varying estimates for cost, the overwhelming consensus from officials is that more funding is needed. This is evident in the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISA) 2020 election infrastructure sector assessment, in which federal officials, state and local election officials from both parties, and election infrastructure vendors wrote in consensus, “There is widespread agreement among election officials that more resources—and, importantly, more sustained resources—are needed.” Yet the officials underscored, “It is impossible to make an honest assessment of the Election Infrastructure Subsector’s risk and the potential to mitigate that risk without an understanding of the chronic resource issues the Subsector faces at all levels of government.”7
Instead of making another general case for why states need more election funding and how much funding they need, this report aims to support continued funding by debunking the most common and compelling myths that have been used to make the case that states do not need federal assistance for elections. It seeks to ensure that policymakers come to the table during legislative processes, including the appropriations process, with a more thorough understanding of how states have spent federal election assistance, in order to ensure election officials continue to receive funding. To that aim, this report lays out the five most common myths used to assert that states do not need more funding and dispels them with both data from spending reports that states have submitted to the EAC since 2018 as well as narratives for important facts that those data sets are not able to portray accurately.
Whether states have spent significant amounts of federal election funding
Myth: States have not spent significant amounts of the 2018 and 2020 federal election funding they have received.
Debunking: Many states have spent all or significant portions of the grants they received in 2018; therefore, many states are now relying almost solely on 2020 funding.
As of March 31, 2022, states had collectively spent more than $482 million—or 53 percent—of the combined $805 million they received in 2018 and 2020, which surpasses the amount of grant funding they received in 2018 ($380 million).8 Another way to look at this is that states have collectively spent their 2018 federal election grants as well as a quarter of their 2020 grants.
When looking closer at individual state spending, nearly 75 percent of states have spent all or significant portions of the funding they received in 2018:
- Half of states and Washington, D.C., have spent more funding than they received in 2018, meaning they are now relying almost solely on their 2020 grants because, at $75 million, the 2022 grant amount was minimal.9
- Another 11 states have spent significant amounts (more than 70 percent) of their 2018 funds.
Additionally, 12 states have spent a significant portion of their 2018 and 2020 grants combined:
- Six states have spent the majority (more than 80 percent) of their combined funds.
- Six other states have spent significant amounts (more than 70 percent) of their combined funds.
And although these spending levels are nearly four years after states first began receiving federal assistance following the 2016 election, spending reports submitted in September 2020 also show that half of states were very quick to use their funding:
- By September 2020, a little less than two-and-a-half years after receiving the 2018 grants, 15 states—including Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—had already spent all their 2018 funding.
- By that time, another 10 states—including Wyoming, Texas, and Montana—had spent from 70 percent to 90 percent of their 2018 funding.10
Overall, states spent their funding quickly after receiving significant federal assistance for elections—for the first time in more than a decade—and the majority of states are now relying on their 2020 grants for federal assistance. The overall spending reported to the EAC is being skewed by some states that have spent very little of their funding; the next myth illustrates why some states have been slow to spend their funding, and why that is neither a problem nor an indication that those states are not in need of federal assistance.
When looking closer at individual state spending, nearly 75 percent of states have spent all or significant portions of the funding they received in 2018.
Whether minimal spending means states don’t need federal election funding
Myth: Some states have spent none or very little of their election grants, indicating they do not need federal assistance for elections.
Debunking: There are many compelling reasons as to why some states have not spent all their funding—including the four factors discussed below.
States’ spending reports reflect funds spent, not funds obligated for projects
Many states have obligated funds for large projects—such as procuring new voting systems or voter registration systems—but these are not reflected in spending reports submitted to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. This means many states have committed part or all their funding to certain projects and no longer have that funding available to spend on other needs but have not yet liquated those funds from their account in the form of paying a vendor or contractor. In an April 2020 brief titled “State Spending of Election Security Grant Funds,” the nonpartisan National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) emphasized how these spending reports are not reflective of all the projects toward which states have obligated funding.11 Additionally, research has found that contracts for large investments such as election systems can take years to finalize, and all states have only reported spending over three years for the 2018 grants and just one year for the 2020 grants.12
If states were reporting on funds both spent and obligated, there would be a much more accurate picture of how much funding states have available to spend and how much federal assistance states need in the long run. The following are specific examples of why states having spent small amounts of their funding should not be a serious concern or deterrent for providing additional funding:
- Louisiana is a prime example of a state that has obligated but not spent its funds; the state has reported not spending any of its funding and is often held up as an example of why states don’t need more funding. In reality, however, Louisiana has approved long-anticipated plans to spend all its funding on purchasing a new voting system but has not been able to finalize a contract.13 This will be a significant expense, and the federal funding the state has received will cover just a little more than 10 percent of the cost.14 Even though Louisiana will have no federal funding available after it purchases a new voting system—just one election expense—the state has not been able to report the funding as spent and appears to have 100 percent of its funding available.
- Oregon, which has spent 59 percent of its funds, has been working for years to replace its centralized voter registration and election management system, which the state plans to have ready by January 2024. The state has reported that all its remaining funding is obligated to developing and maintaining the system, so, more accurately, Oregon has used the entirety of its 2018 and 2020 funding for this one project.15
- Virginia, which has spent 45 percent of its funds, has obligated all its remaining funds to replace the statewide voter registration system. The project is in the final stages of negotiation with vendors, and Virginia expects to award a contract by the end of the year, meaning the state will soon report having spent 100 percent of its 2018 and 2020 funding.16
- Maine has spent only 5 percent of its funding, but the state plans to spend significant amounts to replace its central voter registration system and implement an automatic voter registration system. To that end, in April 2022, the secretary of state signed a contract for $1,835,000 (about 28 percent of the state’s total funding) for a new central voter registration system.17 This means the state has more accurately used approximately 32 percent of its funding.
States plan to use funding over several years for ongoing, not one-time, costs
Many states are using federal funding to pay for ongoing and annual costs, which are only reflected in spending reports once payment has been made, even though states know they will bear these costs for years to come. NASS emphasized these ongoing costs in a published brief underscoring that some states plan to distribute their funds over several years to support long-term programs and personnel.18
These ongoing and annual costs include such expenses as staff salaries, software subscriptions, cybersecurity contracts, training for election workers, and maintenance for election systems. Even though states already know these will be recurring costs, the items only show up as expenses once they have been paid on an annual basis, not as lump-sum costs that the state will bear over the next 5 or 10 years.
The following examples illustrate why these ongoing costs lead to skewed spending reports. If a state made plans to hire additional cybersecurity staff with federal grant funding,19 only three of those years have so far been reported as spending in the form of annual salaries, even though the state will be paying these salaries indefinitely. Similarly, if a state purchased an ongoing subscription for election software or entered into a security contract for annual risk assessments, only three of those years have been paid for so far, but these will continue to be annual costs for which states pay and need funding.
Unless states save some federal funding to continue to pay for these ongoing costs, they will have to bear them on their own—which they may not be able to afford—but in spending reports, these “unspent” funds can be interpreted as states sitting on funding, when in reality the funds have already been set aside to pay for ongoing expenses. And if states want to make further contracts or investments, they need more funding.
States did not receive significant federal election funding for 14 years, and recent disbursements have been inconsistent—forcing states to carefully allocate and spend resources
Since the turn of the century, federal assistance for elections has generally been reserved for voting issues—such as in the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections—and emergency situations such as the coronavirus pandemic. These inconsistencies have left election officials unable to rely on federal assistance for elections and have created a scarcity mindset in which many officials want to save the sporadic funds they receive for a rainy day.
Election officials did not receive significant federal funding for 14 years (from 2004 to 2018).20 This meant they could not rely on federal assistance to administer elections, and many states and officials did not want to burn through the 2018 grants and be left without further federal assistance indefinitely. Before 2018, the last major grants were disbursed in 2004 after being authorized with the original passage of the Help America Vote Act in 2002, and states collectively received only small grant amounts—$70 million to $115 million—from 2008 to 2010. They received no other federal assistance for nearly a decade. The 2018 grants were prompted by Russian interference in the 2016 election, but even after the 2018 grants, states did not receive funding in 2019. And although states once again received election security funding in 2020, they did not receive funding in 2021, and only received $75 million in 2022. This $75 million is virtually nothing divided among 50 states; Washington, D.C.; and the five U.S. territories: Most states received just around $1 million, a part of which is often divided into subgrants for election jurisdictions. It also comes during the final year that federal assistance could have made a significant impact for the 2024 presidential election cycle.21
The inconsistencies in the years and amounts in which federal assistance has been appropriated have meant that states cannot truly rely on federal funding to meet their election needs and that the funding is often just a supplementary resource for states in administering federal elections. These factors leave states administering federal elections on state budgets, and due to competing needs, elections are frequently underfunded. The extremely outdated election infrastructure in 2016 was a product of the the lack of federal funding after 2004 and is evidence of the serious impact that continued inconsistent federal assistance can have on U.S. democracy and national security.
Federal election funding was designed to expire, and many states planned out their spending over the entire period funds were originally available
Both the 2018 and 2020 election grants were originally distributed to states with conditions: that the funding would expire in five years and that any unspent funds would have to be returned to the U.S. Treasury. To ensure that the funding lasted over the period it was available, many states allocated their grant amounts and submitted plans to the EAC detailing how they would spend them over a five-year period. Then on May 22, 2020, the EAC released a statement notifying election officials that the funding would not expire.22 However, by this time, many states had made and submitted their five-year plans.
The last spending reports all states submitted to the EAC were for fiscal year 2021; some states have submitted FY 2022 interim reports. This means comprehensive data are only available for all states’ spending for three years of the 2018 grants and just one year of the 2020 grants. As explained above, states have collectively spent $482 million (including FY 2022 interim reporting), more than the $380 million they received in 2018 as well as a quarter of what they received in 2020, and nearly 75 percent of states spent all or significant portions of their 2018 grants within three years.
Overall, given the original conditions of the grant funding, policymakers should not expect every state to have spent all its funding already, and the spending that states have reported over the past three years should be viewed as significant.
Whether the security of the 2020 election means states need more funding
Myth: States do not need funding to improve election security because the 2020 election was the most secure in history.
Debunking: The 2020 election was indeed the most secure in history. However, states still need to make critical improvements to election security, and they must have funding to gradually keep pace with technology and keep improving security.
On November 12, 2020, CISA—in collaboration with state and local election officials, the EAC, and election infrastructure vendors—put out a statement that the 2020 election “was the most secure in American history.”23 While this is an indisputable fact, it does not mean that election security cannot be improved or that states do not have to continue to keep pace with technologies and continually modernize election infrastructure. To meet both these objectives, states need substantive federal assistance. And it’s critical to keep in mind that the 2020 election was the most secure in large part because Congress provided states with more than $805 million in election security grants and $400 million in emergency election funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Substantive funding is still needed to ensure that all states have paper-based voting systems that can be reliably audited. For elections in 2022, six states will still widely use electronic voting systems that cannot be reliably audited, while another two will use these voting systems as accessible options for voters with disabilities.24 Many states are also trying to replace other outdated election systems, including voter registration systems, and are waiting for more modern and secure voting systems to be available under the EAC’s updated Voluntary Voting System Guidelines (VVSG) before making large investments. The EAC first issued the VVSG—voluntary standards to which election infrastructure vendors can certify their systems—in 2005, and the version approved in 2020, known as VVSG 2.0, was the first time the standards were meaningfully updated.25 The updated guidelines force vendors to develop a more modern fleet of election systems and innovate in a sector that has been largely stagnant for more than a decade.
It’s important to keep in mind that voting systems are just one of states’ many needs, and these needs have only increased over the past few election cycles. Since 2016, election officials have increasingly needed to counter election-related disinformation and misinformation; since the 2020 elections, officials have had to focus on protecting themselves and election workers and volunteers from threats and harassment. This changing landscape has contributed to rising election costs. In June 2022, the Connecticut Secretary of State’s office announced that it will spend $2 million on an election security and public information campaign, $150,000 of which is for the salary of one full-time misinformation expert.26 The price of secure elections is steeply increasing, and election officials need federal assistance in order to keep pace with the increased needs they are trying to meet.
Election security, like other aspects of national security, is an evolving target that must keep pace with technology. In 2016, more than 40 states used voting systems that were more than 10 years old, and this severely compromised U.S. election security and national security. Unfortunately, some states will still use decade-old election systems for the 2022 election cycle.27 The aim of federal election funding should be not only to help states modernize their current fleet of systems but also to help them sustain continual modernization and upgrades so that they do not find themselves in a situation similar to what occurred in 2016. Election infrastructure must not be so outdated that it leaves the country’s democracy vulnerable to interference and exploitation. A secure election is a continuously receding target, and the role of federal funding is to help keep pace so that states and democracy do not fall too far behind.
Whether federal funding is covering states’ election needs
Myth: Federal election grants are bankrolling elections on the federal government’s tab.
Debunking: The federal funding that states have received covers only a small portion of their needs. Some states are depleting state accounts and taking on millions of dollars in debt trying to secure and modernize elections.
In 2019, Pennsylvania purchased new voting systems and had to issue $90 million in state debt to afford them, with many estimates for a new statewide system ranging from $125 million to $150 million. The state only received $14.1 million in 2018 federal election grants to use for the purchase of voting systems and had already distributed part of the funding as subgrants to local election jurisdictions. Yet even the entire amount of funding the state received was only enough to cover less than 10 percent of the debt it had to shoulder.28 Similarly, in 2019, Georgia spent $150 million on new voting machines, but it received only $10.3 million in 2018 federal election grants, which equated to just about 7 percent of the purchase.29 And as noted above, Louisiana has received just about 10 percent of the total cost it will incur to replace its voting system statewide.
Although these are all examples of large voting system purchases, it’s important to keep in mind that voting system expenses are just one of dozens of election-related costs states must bear, and the federal funding provided for these expenses has been just a drop in the bucket. At the same time, given advances in technology—including security and accessibility—the lifespan of voting systems has been estimated to be around 10 years. This means that Pennsylvania and Georgia should be looking to replace their systems around 2029, just seven years from now, but they currently have virtually no federal assistance to put toward this substantive purchase.30
The estimates of what it would cost to substantively fund U.S. elections are also relatively low compared to other major spending amounts; lawmakers should not be balking at the price tag for protecting democracy and must invest in it the same way the federal government does in other areas. To put things in perspective, the Department of Defense spends about half a billion dollars every year on military bands, and the cost of the Navy’s most recent air carrier was $13.3 billion.31 American democracy cannot always be the last item on a laundry list of government funding needs. It deserves to be prioritized and funded like other areas of national security.
American democracy deserves to be prioritized and funded like other areas of national security.
The politics of funding election security
Myth: Federal election grants predominantly benefit blue states, which is why state and congressional Democrats continue to advocate for more election funding.
Debunking: Overall, red states have outspent blue states, and many red and purple states are among the states that have spent the most of their election grants.32
Overall, blue states have spent about 52 percent of the 2018 and 2020 funding they received, while red states have spent about 59 percent of their funding. The average spending by blue states is 51 percent of their funding, and the average spending for red states is 54 percent. When looking at total expenditures across all states, blue states account for 35 percent of total expenditures, and red states account for 50 percent.33
Overall, blue states have spent about 52 percent of the 2018 and 2020 funding they received, while red states have spent about 59 percent of their funding.
Many red states are among the states that have spent the largest portions of their 2018 and 2020 funding, while some blue states are among the lowest spenders. Consider the percentages displayed in Table 1.
Earlier this year, in his fiscal year 2023 budget, President Joe Biden included a policy proposal to provide states with more than $10 billion over the next decade and $250 million this year in the form of a new competitive grant program to encourage innovation in election administration.34 But both the House and Senate included only $400 million for election security grants in their FY 2023 Financial Services and General Government appropriations bills.35 While the Senate’s figure is substantially more than the amount it included in last year’s appropriations bill, the $400 million funding level is $100 million less than what the House included in its appropriations bill last year.
The inconsistent years and amounts of funding have made it clear to states that they cannot rely on the congressional appropriations process to meet their election needs. What states need is a significant and annual stream of federal funding; this would allow them to plan and budget for their elections needs, as well as upgrade, and gradually modernize, the current election infrastructure. Legislation for a sustained stream of election funding has been introduced in Congress, but both the Freedom to Vote Act and the Sustaining Our Democracy Act are not expected to pass this Congress because of the 50-50 split in the Senate and the failed vote earlier this year to reform the Senate filibuster to pass the Freedom to Vote Act.
All these things mean that for the foreseeable future, the appropriations process continues to be the primary mechanism for providing states with federal funding for elections. This report has sought to dispel some of the most common arguments against providing states substantive and regular election funding through the appropriations process, so that policymakers can come to the table with a more thorough understanding of state spending and federal assistance for elections.
U.S. elections have long been underfunded, and the largest investments have typically been made when things went wrong—for example, the hanging chad debacle of the 2000 election and the Russian interference in the 2016 election. This is about preserving democracy, the very foundation of this country’s system of government and what has defined America since its founding. It’s high past time to start investing in protecting democracy in the way that it merits and to empower election officials to do their good work and keep improving and modernizing federal elections.
To download the data set used in this analysis, click here.