The cost of America’s democracy is on the rise. Campaign spending is skyrocketing. The general cost to run an election, from the use of taxpayer dollars to administer an election to the certification of results to everything needed to support elections, is also increasing due to an ever-growing and diversifying electorate, expanded voting options, and aging voting equipment, which all require additional funds. Most alarming, though, is the hidden cost of (improperly) running elections—the cost to marginalized communities and to election officials and workers. These hidden costs are also on the rise with an increase in efforts to restrict access to the ballot, voter confusion, and intimidation and harassment of all involved in the voting process. Understanding the funding needs to run elections—both the known and the hidden costs—allows for the development of solutions to ensure our democracy does not suffer from these costs.
What Does It Cost to Run Elections and Why Is It Increasing?
There is no clear answer to how much it costs federal or state officials to run elections. Costs can be difficult to determine because of how decentralized the process can be—both the funding and the running of elections. Different levels of government can pay for different components of an election, including completely covering or sharing costs for any given activity. For example, some states purchase all voting equipment. States, counties, and municipalities may share the cost of running an election, including personnel costs, and voting equipment usage. It can be difficult to assess the costs because the reporting of expenditures or inclusion in budgets does not always include election administration as line-item amounts.
Despite the fact that there is not a clear understanding of what it costs to run an election state by state, there are common expenses one can expect. There are different buckets of election-related expenses: “Election Day” (including early voting, absentee voting), voting infrastructure (such as voter registration database, voting equipment), and emergency/contingency (such as hurricanes, pandemics). Some costs apply across different buckets, some costs occur infrequently, and some are ongoing. For example, acquiring voting equipment is an infrequent expense. Costs that occur regularly can include printing ballots and other voting materials, paying poll workers and other personnel, transporting voting equipment to polling places, postage fees, security costs (technology as well as personnel and physical barriers), translations (where required), training election officials and poll workers, placing and securing drop boxes, providing supplies, hosting a multilingual hotline, maintaining voter registration lists, and providing support for online voter registration systems.
Costs are also associated with complying with the law to make voting more accessible for voters with disabilities and limited English proficiency (LEP) voters. There are a number of longstanding federal laws that protect the right to vote for voters with disabilities, including the Americans with Disabilities Act from 1990 to the Help America Vote Act of 2002. The Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1975, requires covered jurisdictions to provide language assistance for LEP voters, including through written translations, bilingual poll workers, and the publicity of assistance to the covered community, and it applies to four language groups (Latinos, Asian Americans, American Indians, and Alaskan Natives).
Estimates of annual election funding vary widely from $2 billion to $3 billion or $8 to $15 per vote cast prior to the 2020 election, representing an increase from the 2000 election (which was approximately $1 billion and $10 per voter). The 2020 election saw an even bigger increase, with an estimated cost between $3 billion and $6 billion. Most respondents (63.1 percent) in a survey of local election officials stated spending 50 percent more or twice as much for the 2020 election compared to a typical presidential election, and another 14.6 percent spent over twice as much. In Michigan, clerks and city managers noted an increase of two to eight times the cost for the 2020 elections, with a significant portion related to increased staffing needs to process absentee ballots.
There are three things that are clear from the existing research into the cost of elections: (1) state and local governments need systematic and detailed election cost accounting, (2) more funding is needed to support elections, including election infrastructure (with election funding often being on the low end of state and local government funding), and (3) costs will continue to increase. For example, many jurisdictions have aging voting machines and dated information technology infrastructure. Additionally, jurisdictions need to secure elections both physically, which will become more costly as the political environment gets more volatile, and in cyberspace, which will become more costly as cyberattacks and hacking mechanisms become more sophisticated, complex, and difficult to defend.
The “Hidden” Costs of Running Elections
In addition to the vast array of known costs to support and run elections, there are potential “hidden” costs associated with improperly, inefficiently, or ineffectively running elections. When elections are not properly run, they can result in inequitable access to our democracy, often afflicting our most vulnerable and historically disenfranchised communities.
Inefficient Allocation of Resources
Whether or not jurisdictions are getting the necessary funding to support the running of an election is merely one piece of the equation. What is equally important is the allocation of resources provided. When resources are not properly distributed, inequities ensue, such as extensively long wait times in certain communities but not others. For example, during the 2012 election, voters in Florida, Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina reported waiting in line for up to five hours. During the 2020 primaries, one polling location in an Atlanta suburb of 22,400 residents, composed of nearly 88 percent Black residents, saw hundreds of people waiting outside. This was not an isolated incident in Georgia—since 2013, the Georgia voter rolls grew by nearly 2 million people, fueled primarily by younger, nonwhite voters, but polling locations were reduced statewide by nearly 10 percent. In fact, the nine counties in the metropolitan Atlanta area represent half of the state’s active voters but only 38 percent of the polling places. This is a clear example of ineffective allocation of resources that will lead to longer lines at the polls with a nearly 40 percent growth of the average number of voters for each polling location in those counties.
At a fundamental level, efficiency is affected by how many resources are available, including what time customers arrive and the rate at which they arrive, to achieve the desired outcome. In this case, having enough resources allocated to process voters efficiently and effectively at the polling place is critical to ensuring a smooth voting experience. The General Accounting Office (GAO) identified nine key factors that affected wait times on Election Day 2012: opportunities for voting before Election Day, type of poll books, determining voter eligibility, ballot characteristics, amount and type of voting equipment, number and layout of polling places, number and training of poll workers, voter education, and resource availability and allocation. What resources are available and how they are deployed influence the other identified factors. Voters in counties with the fewest resources waited two to three times longer to cast a ballot as voters in the best-resourced counties in 2018.
Race and ethnicity have a substantial influence on wait times to vote—for example, zip codes with greater than 75 percent nonwhite populations waited more than twice as long as zip codes with less than 25 percent nonwhite populations—unsurprising with the significant under-allocation of polling stations and poll workers in polling places for communities of color. For example, for the June 2020 primaries in Georgia, two-thirds of the polling places that stayed open late for waiting voters were in majority-Black neighborhoods, despite the fact they made up only about one-third of the state’s polling places. The average wait time after 7 p.m. was 51 minutes in polling places that were 90 percent or more nonwhite but only six minutes in polling places that were 90 percent or more white. Counties in which the number of residents of color increased or where incomes decreased over the past decade had fewer resources per voter in 2018 than counties that increased their white population or became more affluent.
The hidden cost of ineffective resource allocation includes long wait times for voters, which, in turn, decreases voters’ confidence that their vote will be counted as intended and increases the likelihood of voter frustration and failure to cast a ballot. This is a prohibitive cost for our democracy made worse by the fact that communities of color and lower-income communities suffer disproportionately.
Failure to Comply with Accessibility Issues
Jurisdictions often bemoan the cost of complying with laws to ensure accessibility during the election process. Not only are these complaints often unfounded, but the hidden cost of failing to comply with these laws and failing to make elections accessible is far greater than the cost of compliance.
While there are costs associated with complying with both language and disability accessibility laws in voting, they are often minimal in part because there are cost-effective ways in which to meet compliance requirements. For example, a May 1997 GAO study on the costs of language assistance compliance surveyed 422 jurisdictions in 28 states and found that the average cost for written assistance was only 14 percent of total costs, and only 6.5 percent of total costs for oral assistance, with some jurisdictions noting no or minimal cost to provide oral assistance. These findings were reinforced by a study conducted by Arizona State University, which found that over a majority of jurisdictions incurred no additional costs for either oral or written language assistance. Similarly, there are ways to efficiently and creatively address the needs of voters with disabilities in compliance with federal laws in a cost-effective manner—jurisdictions need only consult with the impacted community to learn best practices. For example, in Coconino County, Arizona, election officials utilized low-cost, temporary measures to make their polling place accessible on Election Day—using orange cones to designate accessible parking, placing temporary signage to signify the accessible parking spaces as close as possible to the entrance to the gym, and placing a ramp where the pathway to the voting area had abrupt level changes, including a curb where no curb cut existed. Finally, a known cost related to noncompliance cannot be overlooked—the cost of litigation when the impacted community challenges noncompliance.
More concerning is the hidden cost of not complying with accessibility laws—the disenfranchisement of LEP voters and voters with disabilities. Voting can be intimidating and complex, even for native English speakers. It becomes that much more difficult for citizens whose first language is not English. Voting materials are written for a twelfth-grade level or higher of comprehension, making voting more challenging for voters with language barriers. When jurisdictions fail to comply with language assistance laws, LEP voters are not able to fully access the democratic process. Similarly, for voters with disabilities, lack of access, such as 60 percent of polling places and 65 percent of voting stations being inaccessible during the 2016 elections, means that voters with a disability are unable to access the ballot box, which results in lower turnout for the community.
The Proliferation of Harassment and Physical Threats in Elections
Violence has been a part of elections throughout U.S. history. Despite this longstanding fact, the level of violence, harassment, and physical threats grew astronomically against election officials, election workers, and voters during the 2020 election, with no indication that such threats will subside in future elections. For the 2020 election, one in six local election officials noted experiencing threats, with more than half of these cases not reported to law enforcement. Well-publicized threats such as the plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan to death threats issued to secretaries of state, city commissioners, and elections officials across the country, as well as the less publicly known attacks, intimidation, and threats made to all levels of election administrators and their families, were common occurrences leading up to, and in some cases after, the November 2020 election. More than three in four local election officials believed that threats against local election officials have increased in recent years.
In addition to the cost of security for these election officials, the hidden cost of increased violence and harassment is the fact that many election officials are questioning whether to continue working in their capacity and by extension putting their families and themselves in potential harm’s way. One in five local election officials noted they are “very” or “somewhat unlikely” to continue serving through 2024. Furthermore, nearly one in three election officials knows at least one election worker who has left their job in part due to fear for their safety, increased threats, or intimidation. This has led to three in five election officials being concerned that threats and harassment will make it harder to retain or recruit election workers for future elections. For example, by June 2021, a third of Pennsylvania’s county election officials left their position over an 18-month period. In Wisconsin, more than two dozen clerks have retired since the 2020 presidential election, 30 clerks or their deputies quit by the end of 2020, and 13 had left during the first half of 2021. Similarly, Nevada clerks have been resigning in the middle of their terms or announcing plans not to run for re-election; by 2024, new faces will make up more than a third of Nevada’s top county election officials. Fears exist that the harassment and threats will affect not only election official retention but also likely even how officials administer elections, leading to potentially less equitable and more partisan election administration.
Harassment, intimidation, and threats against voters of color have long been a part of our country’s sordid election history. Voter challenger laws have often been used to target voters of color, student voters, and voters with disabilities and have historical origins in suppressing newly enfranchised groups. Many state voter challenger laws were enacted before the Civil War, with some dating back to the Revolutionary War, with lawmakers first empowering private citizens to challenge voters at the polls due to the belief it would be an effective way to suppress voter turnout in Black, Latino, and working-class communities. Voter challenges continue to be used today. For example, in 2005, a private Washington state resident primarily targeted Asian and Latino voters by challenging the right to vote of more than 1,000 people with “foreign-sounding” names, targeting voters with names that “have no basis in the English language” and who “appear to be from outside the United States” while eliminating from his challenge voters with names “that clearly sounded American-born, like John Smith, or Powell.” More recent efforts have intensified through organizations and campaigns, such as “True the Vote,” that recruit private citizens to harass, challenge, and intimidate voters at polling places. These challengers target certain communities based on discriminatory stereotypes to harass and intimidate voters of color. Threats of violence in elections, and the violence exhibited during the January 6 insurrection, have and will continue to undermine participation in our democracy. This disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities, including communities of color, is an untenable hidden cost to the failure to address the proliferation of threats and violence.
The ultimate hidden cost of undermining elections is an erosion of democracy through decreased voter confidence and engagement. Well-resourced parties focused on the continued entrenchment of their power further exacerbate soaring inequities in our society. Fortunately, a plethora of recommendations about best practices and policies for elections if properly implemented will address many of these costs. Underlying these recommendations are principles to adequately fund and resource elections and equitably and efficiently put voters front and center. These principles will help fulfill the promise of America and bring back our democracy as a model on the global stage.