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Estimated Costs of Covid-19 Election Resiliency Measures

Summary: Proper planning can ensure that the pandemic does not prevent a free and fair election. To be effective, funding is urgently needed.

Vote by mail envelopes
Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty

UPDATE 4/18/2020: On March 19, the Bren­nan Center published a prelim­in­ary estim­ate of the cost of adapt­ing the coun­try’s voting systems and prac­tices to ensure that the coronavirus pandemic would­n’t inter­fere with safe and secure elec­tion in Novem­ber. Our estim­ate: approx­im­ately $2 billion. Import­antly, this estim­ate did not include the cost of ensur­ing the safety and secur­ity of the many other statewide and local elec­tions that will occur through­out 2020.

Since our March estim­ate, new guid­ance from health profes­sion­als has led elec­tion offi­cials to take extra actions to ensure the health of their work­ers and voters, includ­ing provid­ing protect­ive gear — such as gloves and masks — to all poll work­ers and offer­ing curb­side voting. Most elec­tion offices also have had addi­tional IT costs asso­ci­ated with ensur­ing that staff can perform crit­ical func­tions remotely and securely.

Given the costs asso­ci­ated with protect­ing state and local elec­tions with the new recom­men­ded health protec­tions and tech­no­logy costs, as well as for safely running dozens of addi­tional elec­tions this year, states and local­it­ies will need many more resources in 2020 than our prelim­in­ary estim­ate for the Novem­ber elec­tion.

Accord­ingly, the Bren­nan Center recom­mends that Congress make avail­able at least $4 billion to ensure all elec­tions between now and Novem­ber are free, fair, safe, and secure.

There is no ques­tion that the Covid-19 pandemic presents a diffi­cult and, in many ways, unpre­ced­en­ted chal­lenge to Amer­ica’s elec­tions. The Bren­nan Center has offered a detailed plan to ensure that the pandemic does not prevent a free and fair elec­tion. Imple­ment­ing that plan must begin now. Below, we provide a prelim­in­ary cost estim­ate to imple­ment all aspects of our plan, which could cost up to $2 billion nation­wide. foot­note1_cw0jiez 1 Our estim­ates are conser­vat­ive because they do not include cost estim­ates for Puerto Rico. We did not include Puerto Rico in our estim­ates because we relied on data from the most recent Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion and Voting Survey, which Puerto Rico did not parti­cip­ate in, as it did not conduct a federal elec­tion in 2018. Congress should of course provide fund­ing for Puerto Rico to imple­ment Covid-19 plans. Of course, the Bren­nan Center plan is not an exhaust­ive list, and states will have addi­tional needs to ensure all of their citizens can vote with confid­ence during this pandemic.

End Notes

Ensuring vote-by-mail option is available to all voters

Total estim­ated cost: $982 million–$1.4 billion

The follow­ing costs should be considered when increas­ing the option of mail voting to all voters across the coun­try:

  • Ballot print­ing. Increas­ing the number of voters using vote by mail will require print­ing a larger number of ballots, absentee envel­opes, and other mater­i­als. Juris­dic­tions should print enough ballots and ballot envel­opes for 120 percent of registered voters to ensure suffi­cient ballots for all voters even if there are surges in voter regis­tra­tion close to the elec­tion and voters who change their minds and decide to vote in person instead of cast­ing their ballot by mail. Estim­ated cost: $54 million–$89 million
    • Based on cost estim­ates provided by three ballot print­ing vendors, we estim­ate that the cost to print a ballot ranges from 21.4 cents per ballot to 35 cents per ballot. We multi­plied these costs by 254 million registered voters, 120 percent of the registered voters in the United States, to obtain our estim­ate.
  • Post­age costs. The costs of both send­ing and receiv­ing ballots should be covered by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). Estim­ated cost: $413 million–$593 million
    • We estim­ate the cost of mail­ing voters their ballots (includ­ing addi­tional mater­i­als, such as return envel­opes, instruc­tions, and other inform­a­tional mater­i­als) will cost $1.15–$2.00 per registered voter, or $243,455,000–$423,400,000 in total. This estim­ate is derived from inter­views with elec­tion offi­cials and ballot print­ing vendors (estim­ates varied widely, from $0.65 in Virginia to over $2.00 in Cali­for­nia). In addi­tion, voters will need to return their ballots. The cost per ballot will be less because addi­tional mater­i­als will not be included in the return. Using an aver­age of 80 cents per ballot for voters to return ballots, we estim­ate an addi­tional $170 million to provide voters with prepaid post­age for voters to return their ballots.
  • Drop boxes for absentee ballots and appro­pri­ate secur­ity. Juris­dic­tions should offer secure drop boxes in access­ible loca­tions for voters to drop off ballots directly. Drop boxes must be equipped with adequate secur­ity meas­ures, such as cameras. Estim­ated cost: $82 million–$117 million for purchase and install­a­tion (exclud­ing current infra­struc­ture in vote-by-mail states) and $35 million–$47 million for oper­a­tion and main­ten­ance (exclud­ing current infra­struc­ture)
    • We know that at least four states — Cali­for­nia, Color­ado, Oregon, and Wash­ing­ton — already have drop boxes in place statewide. Wash­ing­ton State requires at least one ballot box per 15,000 registered voters. In Pierce County, Wash­ing­ton, ballot boxes provided by the company Laser­fab cost between $7,000 and $10,000 to purchase and install. Snohom­ish County, Wash­ing­ton, which uses the same ballot boxes, estim­ates an annual ongo­ing oper­at­ing and main­ten­ance cost of approx­im­ately $3,000 per ballot box in a typical nonpres­id­en­tial elec­tion year and $4,000 per ballot box in a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion year. Account­ing for the four states that already have ballot boxes in place statewide, we estim­ate that 11,666 ballot boxes would be needed nation­wide (~175 million registered voters/15,000 registered voters). To arrive at our cost estim­ate, we multi­plied these vari­ous ballot box costs by 11,666 ballot boxes.
  • Secure elec­tronic absentee ballot request tech­no­logy. Voters must be allowed to request absentee ballots in person or through the mail, and states should offer addi­tional meth­ods to request ballots online or by phone. These costs must also include an increased use of online ballot deliv­ery for uniformed and over­seas citizens absentee (UOCAVA) voters. Estim­ated cost: $16.7 million (exclud­ing current infra­struc­ture)
    • Costs of obtain­ing or devel­op­ing a secure elec­tronic absentee ballot applic­a­tion tool vary widely, but we estim­ate an aver­age of $325,000 per state, if the state currently has online voter regis­tra­tion (39 states and DC have OVR). For the purpose of estim­at­ing an online absentee ballot applic­a­tion tool cost, we assume that all states have OVR, since we account for the cost of imple­ment­ing OVR in a differ­ent section of this docu­ment. We know that at least two states, Virginia and Pennsylvania, already have this tool and that in three states, Color­ado, Oregon and Wash­ing­ton, voters do not need to apply to receive an absentee ballot. There­fore, we multi­plied $325,000 by 46 (45 states and DC) to obtain a total cost estim­ate of $7 million to imple­ment secure online absentee ballot tools nation­wide.
    • We estim­ate a cost of $100,000 per state per year to provide a secure, online blank ballot deliv­ery service, which allows voters to mark their absentee ballot on a computer before print­ing it. This assures access­ib­il­ity for voters with disab­il­it­ies. We estim­ate that at least 25 percent of states already offer a service like this. We multi­plied $100,000 by 37 states to obtain a cost estim­ate of $3,700,000 for this service.
    • We estim­ate the total cost for secure elec­tronic absentee ballot request tech­no­logy/tool + annual cost for elec­tronic vote-by-mail tech­no­logy to be $2,300,000 + $3,700,000, or $6 million total.
  • Ballot track­ing. Ballot track­ing soft­ware should be used to provide confid­ence that ballots are reach­ing the appro­pri­ate destin­a­tion in a timely manner. Juris­dic­tions should also set up a texting service for ballot track­ing inform­a­tion, which will provide voters with remind­ers, confirm­a­tions of receipt, and confirm­a­tions of accept­ance. Estim­ated cost: $4.2 million (exclud­ing current infra­struc­ture)
    • We estim­ate that at least 25 percent of states already have basic ballot track­ing soft­ware. We estim­ate that this soft­ware will cost $50,000 per state. (38 states x $50,000 = $1,900,000). We are provid­ing a separ­ate estim­ate for the text deliv­ery service, which only a hand­ful of states currently util­ize: $50,000 per state. This estim­ate includes setting up the plat­form plus costs of messages. (45 states x $50,000 = $2,250,000)
  • Improve­ments to absentee ballot processing. To manage the increase in absentee ballots, some juris­dic­tions will need to purchase resources that include signa­ture veri­fic­a­tion tech­no­logy, high-volume mail processing and sort­ing equip­ment, and high-speed ballot scan­ners. Estim­ated cost: $120 million–$240 million
    • Approx­im­ately 15 percent of local juris­dic­tions in the coun­try have more than 25,000 voters (15 percent of 8,000 juris­dic­tions is 1,200 juris­dic­tions). High-speed scan­ners for tabu­lat­ing absentee ballots cost in the range of $50,000 to $100,000 per unit. This gives a range of $60,000,000 to $120,000,000 for high-speed tabu­lat­ors nation­wide. The cost for high-speed auto­mated mail sort­ing equip­ment is assumed to be in a similar range and also would only be needed in juris­dic­tions with more than 25,000 voters. This gives a range of $60,000,000 to $120,000,000 for high speed mail processing equip­ment nation­wide.
  • Addi­tional facil­it­ies. Juris­dic­tions will require substan­tially more space for ballot processing and stor­age.Estim­ated cost: $92 million
    • A surge in absentee ballots will require juris­dic­tions to set up an addi­tional loca­tion for ballot processing. Most local elec­tion offices are not large enough to handle these needs and will likely need to obtain commer­cial space. For this estim­ate, we assume lease of a commer­cial space for 60 days to cover pre- and postelec­tion processing work. For 85 percent of locals that have fewer than 25,000 voters (6,800 locals), we estim­ate rental costs of $5,000 per month for a total of $10,000. For the 15 percent of juris­dic­tions that are larger (1,200 locals), we estim­ate $10,000 per month for a total of $20,000. This gives us an estim­ated cost of $92,000,000.
  • Addi­tional staff­ing to support absentee ballot processing. Staff will be needed for processing ballots and duplic­at­ing ballots onto the stock required for tabu­la­tion. Estim­ated cost: $164.6 million 
    • Assump­tions include that addi­tional seasonal staff will be needed to process absentee ballots before, during, and after Elec­tion Day for a total of 14 days. Hourly rate is assumed to be at least $15 per hour for eight hours of work per day. This would be $1,680 per addi­tional worker. For juris­dic­tions under 25,000 voters, we assume 10 addi­tional staff for a total of 68,000 seasonal work­ers. For juris­dic­tions larger than 25,000 voters, we assume 25 addi­tional staff for a total of 30,000 seasonal work­ers. This would require $164,640,000 in addi­tional staff­ing support nation­wide.

Maintaining in-person voting

Total estim­ated cost: $271.4 million

Provid­ing every­one with the option to vote by mail will not replace all in person voting by Novem­ber. The hand­ful of states that have all-mail elec­tions took many years to get there. As we saw in the Iowa caucus, putting too much strain on an entirely new system is sure to result in break­downs and fail­ures. Further­more, there are millions of Amer­ic­ans who will not be able to cast a private and inde­pend­ent vote by mail: people without Inter­net and mail access, those who need language assist­ance to vote, and people with disab­il­it­ies who rely on voting machines to cast their ballots among them. There is evid­ence that the absence of in-person voting options could dispro­por­tion­ately and negat­ively impact Black, Latino, and young voters. We must main­tain the safety-valve of in person voting, but in a way that reduces dens­ity and ensures health. To do so, the follow­ing costs must be incurred:

  • Polling facil­it­ies that meet public health stand­ards. Poll work­ers will need addi­tional resources to clean and sanit­ize all facil­it­ies, machines, and resources. Polling places that use hand-marked paper ballots may wish to give voters single-use pens. Juris­dic­tions may also incur costs due to the need to change polling loca­tions close to Elec­tion Day if public health requires, or to acquire access to backup polling loca­tions. Estim­ated cost: $29.2 million (fund­ing for all states, even though some states may already be paying for some of this cost)
    • Clean­ing supplies would cost an estim­ated $20 per precinct. A sample of three states with no-excuse absentee voting (Illinois, North Caro­lina, and Ohio) had an aver­age of one precinct for every 1,454 registered voters. Clean­ing supplies would there­fore cost $0.013 per registered voter. Provid­ing a single-use ballot-mark­ing pen to every voter would cost about $0.50 per registered voter, if every registered voter voted in person. This will be a much lower cost if vote by mail increases. Estim­ate is based off of pens for 25 percent of registered voters. While this still may be high consid­er­ing the number of voters using absentee ballots and voting machines, the estim­ate will help to cover addi­tional facil­ity costs.
  • Increased poll worker support. Juris­dic­tions must hire poll work­ers beyond the normal amount to over­come day-of absences. Poll worker pay may need to increase to provide an incent­ive for serving in-person voting. Estim­ated cost: $140 million (fund­ing for pay raises for current level of poll work­ers in each state, and full payment for addi­tional poll work­ers in each state)
    • A sample of three states with no excuse absentee voting (Illinois, North Caro­lina, and Ohio) had an aver­age of one poll worker for every 208 registered voters, or about 1 million poll work­ers nation­ally. Increas­ing poll worker hiring by 20 percent as well as provid­ing a raise, bring­ing pay from about $100 to $200 a day, would cost $100 million in raises for current levels of staff­ing and $40 million for the addi­tional 20 million work­ers. 
  • Profes­sional inter­pret­ers. Juris­dic­tions will need to offer language assist­ance by phone in case bilin­gual poll work­ers are absent or unavail­able. Estim­ated cost: $43 million (fund­ing for inter­pret­ive services for all counties covered under Section 203)
    • This estim­ate would cover inter­preter services at a cost of $700 per day for each precinct located in a county covered under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. Notably, this estim­ate only covers inter­preter services on Elec­tion Day, not during early voting peri­ods.
  • Increased provi­sional mater­i­als. Juris­dic­tions should prepare for a surge in provi­sional voting due to delays in the processing of voter regis­tra­tion applic­a­tions. Estim­ated cost: $21 million (fund­ing for all provi­sional envel­ope print­ing, even though states and locals are already cover­ing some of this cost)
    • Supply­ing enough provi­sional envel­opes for 25 percent of registered voters at a cost of $0.40 per envel­ope would cost $21 million nation­ally.
  • Voter wait time tools. States and counties that use vote centers for in-person voting should develop online voter wait time tools to reduce lines and crowding. Estim­ated cost: $1.2 million (fund­ing for all states that allow vote centers)
    • A mobile app that tracks wait times for one Texas county took 50 hours to develop in 2014. Our total estim­ate assumes aver­age rates of mobile app devel­op­ment at $16 per hour and assumes that the time of devel­op­ment increases with the size of the juris­dic­tion.
  • Expan­ded early voting. Juris­dic­tions should expand early voting options to reduce lines and admin­is­trat­ive stress on Elec­tion Day. This will increase all of the costs of in-person voting considered above. Estim­ated cost: $37 million (fund­ing for states that don’t already have early in-person voting)
    • In 2010, Mary­land counties spent $2.6 million to conduct early voting for a one-week period prior to the elec­tion, accord­ing to a legis­lat­ive fiscal analysis. This repres­en­ted $0.74 per registered voter. Adjus­ted for infla­tion, this would be $3.1 million in 2020, or $0.89 per registered voter. For a two-week period of early voting, this would then be $1.77 per registered voter. Exclud­ing the all-mail states, there are 20.7 million voters in states that do not have early in-person voting. Expand­ing early voting to these voters would there­fore cost an estim­ated $36.6 million. More money may be needed to expand early voting peri­ods in states that offer in-person early voting for less than two weeks.

Developing and bolstering online registration

Total estim­ated cost: $85.9 million

In the months and weeks before every pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, millions of Amer­ic­ans update their voter regis­tra­tion inform­a­tion or register to vote for the first time. Covid-19 could severely disrupt this process, making it diffi­cult for Amer­ic­ans to submit timely regis­tra­tion applic­a­tions elec­tions offi­cials to process those applic­a­tions. The outbreak will certainly reduce access to govern­ment offices that provide voter regis­tra­tion services.

States should adopt and bolster online voter regis­tra­tion systems (and they should consider imple­ment­ing same-day regis­tra­tion, the costs of which will likely not be signi­fic­ant). Bolster­ing online regis­tra­tion will include the follow­ing costs:

  • Imple­ment­a­tion of online regis­tra­tion for states where not used already. Thirty-nine states and DC have either fully imple­men­ted online voter regis­tra­tion or are in the process of doing so. The other states should do so before Novem­ber. Estim­ated cost: $3.7 million
    • A 2014 survey of states by the Pew Char­it­able Trusts found that 11 of 13 states that had imple­men­ted online voter regis­tra­tion spent an aver­age of $240,000 in initial star­tup costs. Two outliers repor­ted $0 (Kansas) and $1.8 million (Cali­for­nia). Since one of the remain­ing juris­dic­tions to imple­ment online voter regis­tra­tion is a very high popu­la­tion state (Texas), an increased estim­ate for costs in Texas of $1 million is appro­pri­ate. $3.4 million was then adjus­ted for infla­tion to $3.7 million. 

      Note: some states may not be able or will­ing to move to online regis­tra­tion systems in time for the Novem­ber elec­tion. These states will need to invest in public campaigns, voter outreach, educa­tion, and mail­ings to ensure voter regis­tra­tion is fully up to date. We do not believe the cost of these meas­ures will be signi­fic­antly less than our estim­ates for adop­tion of online regis­tra­tion.
  • Capa­city and vulner­ab­il­ity test­ing. Online voter regis­tra­tion systems should be tested and their capa­city bolstered to ensure that they can handle surges in web traffic. Estim­ated cost: $82.2 million 
    • A 2017 U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion (EAC) survey found that 15 states have either “bottom-up” or “hybrid” voter regis­tra­tion data­bases. For these states, added test­ing will be required, as indi­vidual counties that main­tain their own online voter regis­tra­tion systems will need to conduct capa­city and vulner­ab­il­ity test­ing of those systems. We estim­ate that capa­city test­ing will cost approx­im­ately $25,000–$60,000 per juris­dic­tion and vulner­ab­il­ity test­ing will cost approx­im­ately $80,000–$100,000 per juris­dic­tion. Six states with bottom-up systems have 421 counties total for a total of 421 county and 6 state systems. County level systems are on the high end ($100,000) for vulner­ab­il­ity test­ing but midrange ($40,000) for load test­ing. Nine states have hybrid systems. In Texas, 39 counties oper­ate their own system. Using this as a predictor of the aver­age number of indi­vidual systems, we estim­ate 109 county and 9 state systems across those nine states, which also are on the high end ($100,000) for vulner­ab­il­ity test­ing but midrange ($40,000) for load test­ing. Thirty-four states oper­ate top-down systems (North Dakota does not have regis­tra­tion) and DC is added for 35, each of which is on the high end for load test­ing ($60,000) and vulner­ab­il­ity test­ing ($100,000), adding up to $82.2 million

Public education

Total estim­ated cost: $252.1 million 

Fear and confu­sion around a pandemic create a fertile envir­on­ment for fear, disin­form­a­tion, and efforts to manip­u­late the elect­oral process for improper purposes and partisan gain. State offi­cials, advoc­ates, and citizens should take steps to reas­sure citizens that voting will be safe and to guard against the use of Covid-19 to suppress voters or other­wise manip­u­late the elec­tion. The follow­ing costs should be considered:

  • Public educa­tion campaigns. Juris­dic­tions must inform voters of all changes to voting rules and all options avail­able to register and vote. This must include advert­ising in non-English languages. Estim­ated cost: $250 million 
    • Only five states have essen­tially moved to an all or primar­ily vote-by-mail system. The rest, plus DC, will need to launch public educa­tion campaigns that include mail­ers, tele­vi­sion, radio, social, and other media, all in multiple languages. The 2020 Census simil­arly involves signi­fic­ant changes that the public must learn about, such as an online option and multil­an­guage advert­ising needs. For the 2020 Census, Cali­for­nia is spend­ing about $2.52 per person who was coun­ted in the 2010 Census, while New York City is spend­ing about $0.50 per person. Hous­ton and Harris County in Texas are jointly spend­ing $4 million dollars, or about $0.88 per person. Similar levels of spend­ing per voting-age member of the popu­la­tion — about 77 percent of the total popu­la­tion — would result in costs of between $129 million and $643 million. Our estim­ate for voter educa­tion about options during the Covid-19 pandemic is on the lower end of this range, even though these levels are over and above spend­ing under­taken by the Census Bureau and inde­pend­ent organ­iz­a­tions to ensure an accur­ate count.
  • Strengthened voter resources. Juris­dic­tions must provide access­ible and easily used tools for voters to look up polling loca­tions and regis­tra­tion status in order to proact­ively counter misin­form­a­tion or mali­cious attacks to govern­ment systems. Estim­ated cost: $2.1 million
    • Capa­city test­ing on these websites should cost approx­im­ately $40,000 per state plus DC and Puerto Rico.