election drive-through ballot drop-off

An election judge gathers ballots from motorists at a drive-through site in Denver. (Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Democracy Is Priceless, but Elections Cost Big Bucks

By Wendy Underhill | April 20, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

The usual estimate for running a presidential election is $2 billion to $3 billion nationwide. That’s not counting the costs of campaigns or all the nongovernmental funding associated with registering voters and getting them to the polls; those expenditures are strictly voluntary. It’s a back-of-the-envelope guesstimate as to what local jurisdictions and states spend to put on a major election.

In 2020, the cost was higher than usual as COVID-19 required election officials to find larger venues to avoid crowding, double down on cleanliness, provide protective gear, print far more absentee ballots than ever before—and acquire the ballot-counting equipment to process them. While the equipment will last for years, the invoices all came due in a matter of months.

Because of the pandemic, the federal government pitched in with $400 million in grants to the states for election administration. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, an organization established by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, provided similar funding directly to local election offices as a one-time assist. Put it all together, and the cost of election administration in 2020 might have been closer to $4 billion.

No Strings Attached

States can’t—and many would rather not—rely on philanthropy to fund democracy. In 2021, 11 states enacted laws prohibiting election officials from accepting contributions to stem concerns that there could be coercion, or the appearance of coercion, attached to those funds. Besides, what could be a more quintessential governmental responsibility than running elections?

“Philanthropic donations and pleas for federal funds were the hot topics in election administration budgeting in 2020,” says Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Yet in the long term, we know that financial support for election administrators will continue to depend on appropriations from state legislatures and local governments.”

The lack of reliable information about what it costs to run elections makes it hard for legislators to know how to respond when emergencies like voting during COVID occur. —Charles Stewart III, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

As for federal funding, states are likely to appreciate more of it, so long as strings aren’t attached that could dictate policy choices that traditionally fall to state lawmakers. The history of federal injections of money has been short and sporadic. In 2002, the Help America Vote Act provided about $3 billion to the states for upgrades to registration and voting systems, which was expended over the course of a dozen years. In 2018, $380 million was added to the pot. And then there was the extra $400 million COVID special from 2020, and an additional $75 million in 2022. That’s the grand total for all time.

Local jurisdictions traditionally pay the lion’s share of election administration costs, but all states share the bill, though the state costs are likely buried in the executive branch’s budgets. Unlike some other public policy areas where economists have dug deep, election costs are largely unstudied.

More Data Needed

Inquiring minds want to get a better sense of what it costs to run elections that are efficient, accurate and secure. “The lack of reliable information about what it costs to run elections makes it hard for legislators to know how to respond when emergencies like voting during COVID occur,” Stewart says. “Knowing not only what elections cost overall but getting a better sense of how all the parts of election budgeting work together would invite more informed discussions between legislators and election officials about the states’ needs.”

Until economists and political scientists dig deeper, states concerned about whether elections are being held together by duct tape or are targets for belt-tightening must investigate their own costs, along with who pays.

That starts with knowing who’s in charge of what part of the election ecosystem—voter registration services, election night reporting and cybersecurity are all things that state governments are likely to cover, while in most (but not all) states, locals run the polls and handle the equipment.

Then, there’s the funding itself. Usually, the budget for the secretary of state or state board of elections is not identified as a cost of running elections; it’s just part of the state’s operating funds. And yet, some significant portion of a chief election official’s budget goes toward elections.

New Income Streams

A few states have created income streams that support state election services. In Louisiana, proceeds from the sale of maps of precincts and election jurisdictions by the secretary of state’s office go into a voting technology fund. Maine statutes permit charging fees for providing voter information or absentee list information to political parties, organizations or individuals. These fees are put into a dedicated fund to offset the cost of maintaining the statewide voter registration database. And in Nebraska, fees for candidates who file in the secretary of state’s office (national, state and most special district candidates) are credited to the election administration fund.

Lastly, some states make direct grants to local jurisdictions, largely for equipment replacement and cybersecurity costs. One recent example: The Minnesota Legislature designated new funding for two such grant programs. The first is an existing matching grant program for local governments to obtain election equipment, and the second is to help local governments comply with newly enacted absentee ballot drop box requirements.

“Because election budgets are so small, it’s easy to overlook them,” Stewart says. “I hope that in the coming years, the funding discussion will become more sophisticated, despite the relatively small numbers.”

Wendy Underhill is the director of NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

Additional Resources