Despite being designated critical infrastructure in 2017, federal investment in elections is irregular, unpredictable, and insufficient. Federal funding for elections typically takes place through grants appropriated by Congress and dispersed by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The Department of Homeland Security yesterday departed from business as usual, announcing a new $2 billion fiscal year 2023 grant program to support preparedness against acts of terrorism in high-risk areas, including elections.
Election administration is chronically underfunded, and BPC applauds the DHS for designating $30 million for election security in an acknowledgement of the critical role election administration plays in homeland security. These new funds can be used to shore up election offices’ physical and cybersecurity amidst rising threats from both here at home and abroad. We wish there was more of it so all jurisdictions could benefit.
This grant program is another example of the kind of stopgap elections funding that is often too little, too late to meaningfully improve security. At worst, it risks becoming a short-term band-aid that makes it easier for Congress to avoid allocating the predictable, long-term funding that elections really need.
The DHS grants require that State Homeland Security and Urban Area Security grant recipients dedicate at least 3% of their awards to election security, in theory creating $30,900,000 of new, dedicated election security funds. Previous federal grant programs—such as the Department of Justice’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program—have been expanded to elections without a requirement that they reach election offices, meaning they are in competition with other high-priority public services like police departments and fire to receive funding.
The Bipartisan Policy Center has three concerns with the new DHS grant program that will limit impactful improvements for all American voters:
- $30 million is not enough. Amounting to less than $1 million per state, this funding is but a drop in the bucket of what it would cost to sustainably shore up election security. Equipment upgrades, physical and cybersecurity improvements to offices, and threat tracking and response alone can cost states millions of dollars to implement and millions more to operate in any given year.
- Long-term, predictable funding is needed. Unpredictable, one-time infusions of federal support make it nearly impossible for state and local administrators to invest in the kind of long-term equipment, security, and process improvements that are needed to mitigate trans-jurisdictional threats. Long-term funding needs to come from Congress, though we acknowledge and appreciate that the DHS is filling an ever-broadening resource gap created by their failure to act. While this funding is inadequate, congressional support can work in tandem with DHS grants. For example, because HAVA grants are limited to election-specific projects, whole office projects don’t always meet the standard for funding. DHS grants could fill this gap by providing for whole office security improvements, while long-term federal funding could cover the long-term operational costs of election administration. Both are needed to protect elections.
- Jurisdictions that need funding the most are unlikely to get it. Applying for and complying with grant reporting requirements is often impossible for resource-strapped local jurisdictions if they even know about the grant program to begin with. This new funding does not prioritize or specify outreach to those jurisdictions or reduce compliance burdens that inhibit their participation.
As the nature of threats to elections morphs and grows, so too must our response. When it comes to federal support, election administrators prioritize the need for consistent and predictable funding over any specific amount. Our elections are reliable and secure, but chronic underfunding increases the risk of errors that become grounds for mis- and disinformation. Additional resources, in the form of consistent and predicable federal funding from Congress, are needed to mitigate local vulnerabilities that could have national implications if exploited.
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