By Katy Owens Hubler
Among the buzzy election world topics is aging voting equipment across the nation.
Many of the country’s voting machines were bought with a onetime injection of federal funds following the contested election of 2000. These systems are getting older (their lifespan is usually estimated at about ten years) and election jurisdictions across the country are considering replacing old equipment.
The question this time around, though, is who pays? Funds won’t be coming from the federal government. Before the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) it was counties and local jurisdictions that usually bought voting machines, creating a patchwork of voting systems around the country.
Since the federal money HAVA provided was usually funneled through state governments, we’ve seen the state playing more of a role in the selection and purchasing of voting equipment in the last 15 years. Now that many jurisdictions need new equipment, states are in the process of figuring out how much is needed to replace equipment, and where that money will come from.
Given that election administration in the U.S is so decentralized, comparing costs from one jurisdiction to another within a state, and state to state can be less like apples to apples and more like apples to key lime pie. And every state has a slightly different answer to the question of what role, if any, the state plays in the process of selecting and purchasing voting equipment.
Last week NCSL gathered a team of election policymakers and practitioners from around the country to discuss these questions and more. The meeting marked the launch of a two-year project studying election costs and funding mechanisms, with the generous support of the Democracy Fund. Participants discussed:
- Different funding mechanisms that states use, or are considering using in the future.
- How states distribute election costs between different levels of government.
- Using data to see where money is being spent, and where the process could be made more efficient.
- How different “election models” might affect costs. For example some states provide early voting opportunities, vote centers, no-excuse absentee voting, polling place voting, or a combination of some or all these.
- Viewing elections as essential infrastructure, and how to create ongoing funding mechanisms to ensure elections continue to run smoothly.
Out of this “impending crisis” in voting technology comes a unique opportunity for states to examine their election systems as a whole. NCSL will be providing research and support over the next two years as states seek to examine this issue.
Katy Owens Hubler is a senior policy specialist in NCSL's elections program.