The Path of Federal Election Funding
Congress has appropriated nearly $5 billion to support state election efforts since 2003. This funding is irregular and unpredictable, making it difficult for election administrators to use the funds as efficiently and effectively as possible to make meaningful improvements to election systems.
This explainer summarizes the present state of elections funding, describes timelines for how federal funding gets to state and local municipalities, and clarifies why states need years to spend federal funds.
Lawmakers, election officials, and civil society groups agree that elections are chronically underfunded. Election offices need more resources, yet it can take years for federal funds designated for elections to reach election offices.
A disconnect exists between the lawmakers responsible for funding and the election officials responsible for using it. Election spending requires consistent, methodical, and long-term planning. Lawmakers want quick impacts, but investments in election administration involve longer time horizons. State and local budgeting timelines must be considered when appropriating federal funding for elections.
The State of Federal Election Funding Today
The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 established the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to assist states with federal elections and distribute funds for states to replace outdated voting systems. Since 2003, about $5 billion has been appropriated to state election offices through the EAC. According to the EAC’s 2020 expenditure report, states have spent more than 88%—about $3.7 billion plus interest—of the HAVA funding appropriated by Congress after 2003.
HAVA election security grants account for some of the unspent portion of these funds. After cybersecurity threats in the 2016 election, Congress appropriated $380 million for HAVA election security grants to states in fiscal year 2018. Of this, 84%, or $323 million, has been spent. Since then, Congress has allocated various amounts in HAVA election security funds roughly every two years. In 2020, Congress appropriated $425 million. While this explainer focuses on the 2018 and 2020 funds, it’s worth noting that in 2022 Congress appropriated only $75 million in HAVA election security funds. The 2022 amount is far less than in previous years, which prevents states from using funds for larger purchases.
In total, 48%—about $384 million—of the 2018 and 2020 HAVA election security grants are unspent as of March 2022. For a variety of reasons, described below, states need time to spend federal election funding. While some lawmakers have criticized states for not spending all the appropriated funds, the unique expenditure timeline for federal money in elections necessitates ample time for spending.
The infographic below shows that 16% of 2018 funds and 77% of 2020 funds are unspent as of March 2022. States have yet to report spending of 2022 funds because of their recent appropriation in March 2022.
Irregular Funding Leads to Irregular Spending
Election officials use federal election dollars to upgrade voting systems, maintain voter registration databases, provide provisional and convenience voting options, train election officials and poll workers, and bolster election administration infrastructure across the country. Large purchases, like voting systems, take years of planning and millions of dollars of investment.
While federal funds do help, they are notoriously inconsistent. For example, no new funds were appropriated between 2010 and 2018. As a result, states cannot rely on federal election dollars for their annual budgeting cycles. When the federal government appropriates funds, states are often cornered into making hasty purchasing decisions or hoarding funds for future investments. It is a dereliction of duty to replace voting systems during an election year. The 2018 and 2020 HAVA funds arrived in state bank accounts in the middle of election years, complicating state election spending procedures during a hectic time.
The funds present administrative and fiscal challenges as well. Reporting and matching requirements strain state and local resources. Biannual reporting procedures for HAVA election security grants require time and staff that state election offices lack. Cash-strapped state governments sometimes have difficulty finding matching funds in the budget when funds occur sporadically.
Why wait to spend funds?
In total, 84% of the funds appropriated in 2018 have been spent, as have 23% of the funds appropriated in 2020. BPC has identified four main reasons for the current lack of expenditure:
- Longer spend rates: The irregularity of federal election appropriations may encourage states to expand their spend rates. While funding has occurred every other year since 2018, that appears to be less of a plan and more of a coincidence that states and localities cannot rely on. Election officials and policymakers do not know when funding will be available again, and some choose to spread the available funds out over as long of a period as is allowed. Multiple recent appropriations also complicated decision making. States only had eight months to spend 2020 CARES Act funding. This short window of time incentivized some states—which originally planned to spend election security funds in 2020—to spend CARES Act money first instead.
- Budgeting for large expenses: Some states describe large expenses in their narrative and budget description for the use of funds. These investments, like new voter registration systems, can take years to plan for and acquire.
- Legislative barriers: In some states, the legislature must authorize the use of federal funds. Some state legislatures have deadlocked on whether or how to spend the funds.
- Lack of matching funding: Some state legislatures have struggled to find money in the state budget to match the federal funds. The 2018 and 2020 HAVA election security grants required a state match of 5% of the amount allocated at the federal level. The 2022 funds require a 20% match.
From federal to state
Total time: 3-4 months
The EAC tries to get funding appropriated by Congress to states as soon as possible. As a result, states have a short window of time to make spending plans for large amounts of money. Decisions that typically take at least a year in the annual budget-making process now need to be made within the span of a few months. Federal funding goes through several steps from when it is appropriated by Congress to when it reaches the hands of state governments:
- Funds are appropriated by Congress and signed into law by the president.
- The EAC makes funds available to states.
- States have three months to gather materials and apply for the funds.
- The EAC processes grant requests within five business days.
To apply for funds, states must gather certifications for federal funding, write a program narrative, and create a budget plan that documents how the state intends to spend the funds. The planning processes for program narratives and budget plans occur long before the deadlines to apply for funds.
The unpredictable and insufficient amounts of federal funding often leave states resource-constrained to complete reporting procedures. Several states report in their 2018 and 2020 federal financial reports that they intend to hire a HAVA coordinator to support grant administration.
Example: Timeline for FY2018 HAVA Election Security Grants
March 23, 2018: President Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 that sent $380 million to EAC for HAVA election security grants.
April 27, 2018: The EAC published the awards packet and instructions for states to apply for funding.
July 16, 2018: This was the deadline for states to submit a detailed timeline and description of use for the funds.
From state to local
Total time: varies by state
It takes years for states to plan for and spend funds. Unlike the process for grant money going from federal to state government, the process from state to local government is variable from state to state. States may transfer funds directly to local units of government or they can use funds for in-kind support of local election offices.
The states that directly transfer funds to local jurisdictions, typically in the form of subgrants, often allocate to counties based on population or need. Counties must submit applications for subgrants and include details about how they intend to spend the funds. In most states, expenses must be budgeted for, approved, and then purchased before counties are reimbursed with federal funds. Contracting and procurement times at the local level add even more complexity.
Below are a few examples from states whose reporting mechanisms provide a narrative of how long procurement and spending took.
For each of the following examples, BPC consulted the program narratives and federal financial reports of the states specified to piece together a rough procurement and purchasing timeline. In the case of Louisiana, we describe an attempted procurement timeline. These examples are intended to show the length of the procurement process, but not necessarily the details of that process.
- ILLINOIS: As of September 2021, Illinois spent nearly $9 million in HAVA funds to support their state of the art cyber navigator program. When Illinois created this program after the cyber threats in 2016, the state needed to ensure that the program would be able to last despite irregular federal funding. This means that the remaining HAVA funds are earmarked for the expansion and continuation of the cyber navigator program.
- INDIANA: It took two years for the Indiana Secretary of State’s Office to use $1.9 million in HAVA funds to purchase voting machines with a voter-verified paper audit trail for Steuben and Tippecanoe counties. The state declared an intention to purchase auditable voting systems in 2019 with the anticipation of deploying these machines for the 2020 election. Due to COVID, the machines were not deployed until 2021. This is an example of a state directing HAVA funds to the county level.
- DELAWARE: It took three years for the Delaware Secretary of State’s Office to use $35k in HAVA funds to upgrade election facilities’ security systems in Kent, New Castle, and Sussex counties in 2021. The Secretary of State’s Office announced plans to upgrade their voting system to include a system with more cybersecurity protections in 2018. Delaware used most of the HAVA funds to replace and upgrade equipment.
- MAINE: It took four years for the Maine Secretary of State’s Office to use HAVA funds to sign a $1.8 million contract for a new central voter registration system. The Secretary of State signed the contract on April 19, 2022. The state began planning for the overhaul of its voter registration system in 2018. The voter registration system has not been updated since 2007. This is an example of a state using HAVA funds at the state level.
- LOUISIANA: As of September 2021, no HAVA election security funds have been spent in Louisiana. The secretary of state issued multiple requests for proposals (RFPs) for a new voting system to the state legislature since March 2018, but no RFP has been approved for posting. The secretary of state continues to work with the Louisiana legislature to address questions about the RFP, to receive legislative approval for the purchase, and to procure a new voting system for the state’s voting jurisdictions. Louisiana still has a year to spend its 2018 HAVA appropriation, $5.9 million, and over two years to spend its 2020 HAVA appropriation, $12.5 million. The estimated total cost of the new voting system in Louisiana is $100 million, so the HAVA funds cover only a fraction of the cost. The state plans to cover the rest.
States spend HAVA funds in accordance with the window of time given. For more regular and steady spending, election offices need regular funding. Smooth and safe elections require ongoing investments at the state and local levels; to achieve this, we need sufficient and predictable federal funding streams. Ongoing federal funding dispersed regularly would ameliorate all four reasons why funds aren’t spent:
- Predictable funding would prevent states from hoarding funds.
- Continuous funding would allow states to budget for those larger expenses.
- Regular funding would incentive state legislatures to compromise.
- Reliable funding would allow states to plan for the state match over time.
Critical election infrastructure needs for an imminent election cannot be solved with one-off injections of last-minute federal funding. Election offices need longer timelines to set expectations for upgrading election infrastructure.
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