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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.