Skip Navigation
Expert Brief

Federal Funds for Election Security: Will They Cover the Costs of Voter Marked Paper Ballots?

Under the terms of the omnibus spending bill voted on by the House, states will receive $380 million within months to start to strengthen the security of our nation’s election infrastructure. This near-term funding is critical, but more needs to be done.

Published: March 23, 2018

[Down­load a PDF of this analysis by the Bren­nan Center and Veri­fied Voting here.]

Under the terms of the omni­bus spend­ing bill voted on by the House, states will receive $380 million within months to start to strengthen the secur­ity of our nation’s elec­tion infra­struc­ture. This near-term fund­ing is the product of tire­less work by members of both parties, and a crit­ical acknow­ledg­ment from Congress that protect­ing our elec­tions is a matter of national secur­ity. States can use the fund­ing imme­di­ately to begin deploy­ing paper ballots, post-elec­tion audits, and other essen­tial cyber­se­cur­ity improve­ments. However, the new fund­ing is only a first step, as many in Congress have acknow­ledged, and further Congres­sional action will be neces­sary in order to ensure that future elec­tions are secure. 

Most signi­fic­antly, the omni­bus fund­ing as alloc­ated to the states under the Help Amer­ica Vote Act (HAVA) will not be enough for some states to replace their insec­ure voting machines. Because paper­less elec­tronic voting systems are highly vulner­able to cyber­at­tacks, it is urgent that those systems be replaced as soon as possible, as the Senate Select Commit­tee on Intel­li­gence (SSCI) recom­men­ded earlier this week. Until this is done, it will be impossible to ensure that elec­tion results as repor­ted by the voting system have not been corrup­ted by a cyber­at­tack.

Thir­teen states, includ­ing key swing states like Pennsylvania, continue to use paper­less voting today. One of the main reas­ons is cost: cash-strapped states simply can’t afford to replace this aging equip­ment. Unfor­tu­nately, our analysis shows that under the new federal fund­ing, seven of the 13 states with paper­less machines will receive less than 25 percent of the money they may need to replace them. Moreover, most states will also need to use some of the new fund­ing to pay for improved audit­ing and other secur­ity meas­ures, leav­ing even less for crucial tech­no­logy upgrades.

Expec­ted New Fund­ing

The new federal funds will be distrib­uted to states accord­ing to a formula from HAVA, taking into account the voting age popu­la­tion of each state. We estim­ate that states will receive the follow­ing amounts:

All dollars in millions.

* These numbers have been updated since the morn­ing of March 23 after consulta­tion with the Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion as to how they will apply the HAVA formula.

Repla­cing Paper­less DREs

Thir­teen states still use paper­less Direct Record­ing Elec­tronic voting machines (DREs) – voting machines that directly record, in elec­tronic form, the voters’ selec­tions – as their primary polling place equip­ment in at least some precincts: Arkan­sas, Delaware, Geor­gia, Indi­ana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisi­ana, Missis­sippi, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Caro­lina, Tennessee and Texas. Five of these states still use paper­less systems statewide.

Below are estim­ates[1] by the Bren­nan Center and Veri­fied Voting for what it would cost each state to replace paper­less equip­ment that is the primary polling place equip­ment with optical scan voting systems. Optical scan systems read and tabu­late voter-marked paper ballots, marked by hand or by an access­ible ballot mark­ing device, and retain those paper ballots for recounts or audits. We also estim­ate the percent­age of each state’s costs that the new federal money would cover.[2] Our estim­ates include the purchase of voting equip­ment, like scan­ners, ballot mark­ing devices, and other peri­pheral elements of voting systems. The estim­ates do not include long-term costs asso­ci­ated with the main­ten­ance of voting systems or ongo­ing, elec­tion specific costs.

All dollars in millions.

* These numbers have been updated since the morn­ing of March 23 after consulta­tion with the Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion as to how they will apply the HAVA formula.

Alloc­ated in this way, $380 million will not be enough to replace all paper­less voting systems. In smal­ler states like Delaware, or in states like Texas and Arkan­sas – where a relat­ively small percent­age of machines are still paper­less – the federal money could go a long way toward repla­cing such equip­ment. But in some larger states that are almost or fully paper­less, like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Geor­gia, this money might not even cover 20 percent of the cost of new hard­ware.

Repla­cing All DREs used as primary polling place equip­ment

While much of the recent public discus­sion about elec­tion system secur­ity has centered on paper­less systems, secur­ity experts have also expressed seri­ous concerns about DREs that have voter-veri­fied paper audit trails (VVPAT).

Like paper­less DREs, DREs with VVPAT record voters’ choices directly onto computer memory in elec­tronic form, but they also produce a paper record of each vote that may be reviewed by the voter. Stud­ies have shown that many voters fail to notice errors in the VVPAT record, which means a hacked machine could falsify both the elec­tronic and paper records without being detec­ted. Moreover, VVPAT records can be fragile and cumber­some to audit, as the paper trail typic­ally takes the form of a hundred-foot long roll of cash register tape. Like paper­less DREs, DREs with VVPAT are suscept­ible to hack­ing, includ­ing attempts to sabot­age the machines and cause them break down on elec­tion day. For all these reas­ons, experts and advoc­ates have long called for these machines to be replaced with optical scan paper ballots.

Twenty states make wide­spread use DREs either with or without VVPAT. Below, we estim­ate the cost of repla­cing all primary polling place DREs, and the percent­age of money states would receive from the omni­bus budget to cover this cost. Nine of the 20 states are likely to receive less than 25 percent of the fund­ing they need to replace this equip­ment.

All dollars in millions.

* These numbers have been updated since the morn­ing of March 23 after consulta­tion with the Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion as to how they will apply the HAVA formula.

Urgent Next Steps for States and Congress

With the grow­ing threat of inter­na­tional cyber­at­tacks, states need to take urgent meas­ures to secure their elec­tion infra­struc­tures in time for voting in 2018 and 2020. Cyber­se­cur­ity experts agree about what needs to be done: secur­ing voter regis­tra­tion systems, repla­cing paper­less machines, and imple­ment­ing robust post-elec­tion audits to verify that the repor­ted elec­tronic results are accur­ate. The omni­bus, though insuf­fi­cient to make all of these needed improve­ments, will help states get star­ted and buy Congress time to pass a more compre­hens­ive elec­tion cyber­se­cur­ity meas­ure. Further Congres­sional action is required to provide the guidelines, resources, and incent­ives that states need to fully imple­ment these essen­tial safe­guards.

To do so, Congress should complete its work on the Secure Elec­tions Act (SEA), a bipar­tisan bill that has been gain­ing momentum in the Senate. The SEA would estab­lish cyber­se­cur­ity guidelines, facil­it­ate crucial inform­a­tion shar­ing, provide grants for states to fully replace DREs with paper ballots, and encour­age states to imple­ment robust stat­ist­ical audit­ing.  By prior­it­iz­ing fund­ing to states with obsol­ete equip­ment and mandat­ing sens­ible cost shar­ing, the SEA is designed to accom­plish these within a budget barely greater than the imme­di­ate omni­bus funds.

[1] Based on a review of recent contracts in Michigan and cost estim­ates provided by the states of New Mexico and Virginia (where juris­dic­tions recently purchased optical scan and ballot mark­ing systems), we estim­ate the cost per precinct for such equip­ment should be between $6200 and $10,000.

[2] Some states, includ­ing Geor­gia and South Caro­lina, have estim­ated costs to replace DREs that are even higher than what is repres­en­ted in these bands. That is at least in part because our estim­ates are for hard­ware, and do not include accu­mu­lated costs for main­ten­ance and soft­ware licens­ing.  While these costs will add to the total purchase price, in many cases much if not all of that cost will be recouped by elim­in­at­ing the main­ten­ance and licens­ing costs asso­ci­ated with using anti­quated equip­ment (the South Caro­lina elec­tions commis­sion recently reques­ted $8.8 million  to keep current systems work­ing until replace­ments are oper­a­tional).