Skip Navigation
Analysis

What Does Election Security Cost?

The Brennan Center examines the potential cost of key election security measures.

To view our break­down of cost estim­ates, click here

The nation’s top elec­tion offi­cials have stated that they need addi­tional resources to protect our elec­tions from cyber­at­tacks. One ques­tion we at the Bren­nan Center are frequently asked is, ‘How much is enough?’. This is a diffi­cult ques­tion to answer, given the fact that cyber threats evolve and change over time, and because the nation’s infra­struc­ture is vast, with needs vary­ing greatly across more than 8,000 separ­ate elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion juris­dic­tions.

Never­the­less, it is possible to provide a rough cost estim­ate for some of the most crit­ical meas­ures that should be put in place as soon as possible. The Bren­nan Center has iden­ti­fied four elec­tion secur­ity needs that deserve partic­u­lar atten­tion: cyber­se­cur­ity support for under-resourced local elec­tion juris­dic­tions; replace­ment and upgrades to elec­tion-related computer systems and websites, partic­u­larly those related to voter regis­tra­tion; replace­ment of anti­quated and insec­ure voting machines; and imple­ment­a­tion of robust post-elec­tion audits to ensure accur­acy of unof­fi­cial elec­tion results. As detailed below, we estim­ate the nation­wide five-year cost for these basic secur­ity items to be a net total of approx­im­ately $2.153 billion.

Addi­tional State and Local Elec­tion Cyber­se­cur­ity Assist­ance

Total Cost For 5 Years: $833 million

Computer systems at offices for state and local elec­tion offi­cials need to be strengthened against ongo­ing cyber threats. Amer­ica’s elec­tions are largely run at the local level. As one state elec­tion offi­cial recently put it to us, “it is not reas­on­able” to expect each of the more than 8,000 separ­ate elec­tion offices in the coun­try to “defend against hostile nation state actors.” This is partic­u­larly the case for local elec­tion offices that frequently have little or no in-house IT or cyber­se­cur­ity resources.

Illinois’ newly estab­lished cyber navig­ator program provides a frame­work that could be adap­ted by other states. Cyber navig­at­ors are secur­ity experts respons­ible for work­ing with local elec­tion offices to assess needs and ensure proper local elec­tion secur­ity. These cyber navig­at­ors also work with local elec­tion offices in address­ing any iden­ti­fied vulner­ab­il­it­ies. It would cost approx­im­ately $55 million annu­ally to imple­ment this type of program nation­wide, not includ­ing costs neces­sary to fix any iden­ti­fied vulner­ab­il­it­ies.

A related effort recently estab­lished by the Cali­for­nia Secret­ary of State provides fund­ing for dedic­ated staff­ing and resources to ensure the state elec­tion office is imple­ment­ing neces­sary cyber­se­cur­ity require­ments into its systems. The initi­at­ive will help secure websites from mali­cious attacks, assist in limit­ing outside IP addresses’ access to the statewide voter regis­tra­tion system, and support other routine cyber­se­cur­ity efforts. This would cost approx­im­ately $111.6 million per year nation­wide.

Protect Voter Regis­tra­tion Infra­struc­ture

Total Cost For 5 Years: $486 million

Many statewide voter regis­tra­tion systems in use today were first estab­lished between 2004 and 2006 as states were work­ing to meet the Help Amer­ica Vote Act require­ments. These systems were not designed with cyber­se­cur­ity protec­tions needed to face today’s threats against our elec­tion infra­struc­ture. We know that statewide voter regis­tra­tion systems are primary targets of foreign inter­fer­ence, as evid­enced by the success­ful breach of Illinois’ system and the attemp­ted breach of Arizon­a’s system prior to the 2016 elec­tion.

Addi­tional fund­ing is crit­ical in order for states to upgrade or replace statewide voter regis­tra­tion systems. Several states have recently done so, ranging from Idaho’s $4 million system to Cali­for­ni­a’s $98 million system. More secure and modern voter regis­tra­tion systems will increase secur­ity at the state and local level, and better protect voters’ personal inform­a­tion across the coun­try.

Provid­ing this fund­ing would ensure that all states have a modern and more secure statewide voter regis­tra­tion system by the 2024 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. System replace­ment involves a consid­er­able amount of plan­ning and test­ing prior to imple­ment­a­tion. Depend­ing on the complex­ity of the new system and the age of the exist­ing system, repla­cing a statewide voter regis­tra­tion system can take 1–3 years after a compre­hens­ive procure­ment process has been completed. 

Voting Machines

Total Cost For 5 Years: $734 million

The number of states and juris­dic­tions using paper­less DREs has dwindled thanks to a concer­ted effort to upgrade since the 2016 elec­tion. These machines are being replaced by paper-based systems that allow for appro­pri­ate audit­ing through the use of the inde­pend­ent paper record. But the major­ity of places still using paper­less DREs have continu­ally cited costs as a barrier to repla­cing the machines with more secure paper-based systems.

In addi­tion to repla­cing paper­less DREs, there is also a grow­ing need to replace older paper-based systems. As voting equip­ment ages, it tends to break down more frequently. And elec­tion offi­cials have a harder time find­ing replace­ment parts, which become scarcer and more expens­ive.

Making $734 million avail­able for equip­ment replace­ment over the next 5 years should ensure that most voting equip­ment in the coun­try that was 10 years old in 2020 is replaced by the 2024 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. This is a conser­vat­ive estim­ate for the price of hard­ware. These estim­ates do not neces­sar­ily include asso­ci­ated costs like main­ten­ance and print­ing paper ballots.

Post-elec­tion Audits

Total Cost For 5 Years: $100 million

Robust post-elec­tion audits are a neces­sary compon­ent of elec­tion secur­ity. In partic­u­lar, risk-limit­ing audits will allow elec­tion offi­cials to identify any poten­tial issues with the elec­tronic vote tallies prior to certi­fy­ing an elec­tion. Risk-limit­ing audits also require fewer ballots to be reviewed than more tradi­tional audit­ing meth­ods, redu­cing the need for full hand count reviews. In Congres­sional testi­mony, Professor J. Alex Halder­man estim­ated the cost of risk-limit­ing audits nation­wide to be approx­im­ately $20 million annu­ally. RLAs will provide addi­tional assur­ance to voters and candid­ates that elec­tion results are accur­ate before they are final­ized.

Conclu­sion

Secur­ing our elec­tions is imper­at­ive, and states and local govern­ments need ongo­ing and reli­able fund­ing to make it happen. A minimum invest­ment of $2.153 billion over the next five years will bring all states to a reas­on­able baseline on elec­tion secur­ity. These are costs above and beyond the routine costs of admin­is­ter­ing elec­tions, and are focused on the urgent needs to protect elec­tions infra­struc­ture from foreign inter­fer­ence or hack­ing.