Funding the Next Generation of Elections Technology

By Amanda Buchanan | Vol . 25, No. 05 / February 2017


Did you know?

  • The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration report deemed the current condition of elections technology “an impending crisis.”

  • At least 24 states have considered or purchased new elections technology in the last three years.

  • The federal government plays no role in funding elections.

Democracy hinges on free and fair elections—on that all can agree. What’s less clear is who should foot the bill for the gateway to an election’s integrity, accuracy and accessibility: the machines used to cast and tabulate ballots.

Over 10,000 jurisdictions—from states to cities—have a hand in administering and paying for elections.  Some states pay entirely for elections, including the costs of technology and poll workers, while some localities do it all on their own. Most states lie somewhere in the middle.

As voting machines across the country near the end of their shelf life—with equipment no longer supported by manufacturers, obsolete components and newer, better technology on the market—lawmakers are taking notice. States have always played an independent role in certifying elections technology, but increasingly, their role has expanded to paying for it as well.

About half of states have made recent technology purchases, or are planning to do so. That number will only increase over the next few years. Yet despite widespread agreement that it is time for elections technology upgrades, the state’s share of the cost is up for debate.   

State Action

Here are three recent examples of states strategies to pay for elections technology:

  • New Mexico traded in a county-by-county approach of selecting and purchasing elections technology for a uniform statewide system. The Legislature appropriated $12 million for the new technology over two sessions, replacing Direct-Recording Electronic (DRE) machines with a hybrid solution of paper ballots and optical scanners.
  • Colorado moved to a uniform voting system, and encouraged, rather than mandated, counties to choose that system when they upgrade. The carrot? Should a county choose to purchase the recommended equipment, the state pays for 50 percent of the training, testing, installation and maintenance needed for the new machines. Plus, the counties benefit from a statewide negotiated price. The backbone of Colorado’s all-mail elections model is the paper ballot mailed to every registered voter; these are tabulated on optical scanners. The new in-person voting equipment is a hybrid model that includes ballot marking devices with paper back-ups and scanners. Each county used to be in charge of its own equipment, resulting in as many as four vendors and even more versions of equipment used throughout the state.
  • Maryland split the cost of its new statewide system 50/50 between the state and counties. The state negotiated a statewide lease of new equipment in 2014. In 2007, the legislature mandated a paper trail of all ballots, but lack of funding precluded implementation until 2014, when the lease of new equipment was finalized. The new system requires voters to fill in by hand paper ballots, which are fed into a scanner and tabulated.

Each of these three examples demonstrates movement from electronic voting machines to hybrid systems that merge the technological advances of the past decade and the utility of a paper ballot or record. Although this trend is not universal, it is widespread and likely to continue.

State legislators may want to consider the following questions as they face the challenge of funding new election technology and upgrades:

  • Will financing for a technology purchase be accomplished through a direct appropriation, a cost-sharing system, a grant from the state, a lease, a bond, dedicated revenues from fees, or some other mechanism?
  • Will there be uniformity in the system? Should every jurisdiction throughout the state use the same equipment? If so, does the state mandate and purchase equipment for statewide use, or offer incentives for local participation?
  • What does the elections model of today and in the future look like? As more people choose to vote before Election Day, how will that affect technology choices? 

Over the last few years, Colorado, Delaware, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and South Carolina have each created a task force or special committee to study election technology options. State legislators and local election officials alike can call on NCSL’s elections team to support those efforts.

Federal Action

Only one time in history has the federal government chipped in for the cost of elections. In 2002, Congress enacted the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which provided $3 billion for states to replace punch card and lever systems with new elections technology. HAVA also touched on a few election administration issues, mandating statewide voter registration systems and establishing the federal Election Assistance Commission, among other things. By doing so, HAVA in effect shifted election administration responsibilities in part from localities to states. HAVA funds are now mostly depleted, and few expect additional election-related funds to be made available. 

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