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Expert Brief

Long-Term Investments in Rural Broadband Access Strengthen Democracy

Federal broadband initiatives can promote access to voting, especially in rural communities.

Reliable access to the internet, a critical portal to information, tools, and opportunities in today’s world, is uneven across the United States. Poorer and more rural communities often have the least access or no access, which puts them at a disadvantage compared to their well-resourced neighbors. As the National Association of Counties explained, “Without access to high-speed internet, many of our rural communities are becoming increasingly isolated and left behind.”footnote1_c69IKoFGBAPz1National Association of Counties, “NACo, Rural LISC and RCAP Launch Mobile App and Announce the Bridging the Economic Divide Partnership to Address Rural Broadband Access,” March 5, 2019, https://www.naco.org/resources/press/naco-rural-lisc-and-rcap-launch-mobile-app-and-announce-bridging-economic-divide (“Lack of reliable broadband is a major economic barrier and an issue of socioeconomic equality. Our lives and futures have become inextricably tied to technology.”).

One overlooked consequence of this divide is how it impedes election administration improvements. Election jurisdictions with broadband infrastructure have many advantages, such as more options to communicate election information, including real-time updates, and more options to make voting easier for eligible voters. Lack of connectivity keeps rural communities from capitalizing on these benefits.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes significant federal funding for expanding broadband infrastructure, and states are currently developing their plans and identifying funding priorities for these grant funds. As these decisions can have a significant impact on election administration, federal and state grant administrators should ensure that election officials are recognized as important stakeholders and consider their input when making grant resource investment decisions to guarantee that improving access to, and thereby strengthening, our democracy is properly prioritized.

Impact of Broadband Connectivity on Elections

Expanded broadband connectivity allows states and municipalities to bring security-enhancing technologies that are not connected to the vote-tabulation system, such as electronic pollbooks, to underserved communities. With electronic pollbooks, election officials can instantaneously update lists of eligible voters and voter information, such as addresses, to ensure that voters receive the correct ballot. They can also more efficiently direct voters to the correct polling location, if necessary, and reduce wait times with quicker processing. Not only does this technology boost the accuracy of ballot distribution, but it also prevents double voting, thereby strengthening the overall reliability of the electoral process.

There is a common misperception that all connectivity at the polls is dangerous to election security. To be sure, there are risks associated with certain kinds of connectivity, such as online voting or connections involving voting equipment. But jurisdictions can and should take advantage of tools like connected electronic pollbooks while ensuring that voting equipment stays unconnected and that machines continue to produce paper records. And they can protect e-pollbooks through robust security measures, such as encrypting communication between the e-pollbooks and mandating strong passwords that are changed after each election.

Broadband connectivity is important when election officials establish vote centers, which allow voters, regardless of their residential address within the county, to vote on the correct ballot and have their ballot counted. The vote center model offers greater flexibility, as the voter is no longer limited to a polling place in a specific precinct and can vote at more convenient locations, like somewhere closer to their work or school. This added convenience not only makes voting more efficient and accessible but could also reduce the number of provisional ballots that are rejected because they were cast in the wrong precinct. To establish more than one vote center in a single jurisdiction, administrators need e-pollbooks capable of real-time updates to the centralized voter file so that they can print the appropriate ballots for voters and confirm that they have not already voted at a separate center. This requires sufficient connectivity.

Currently, some states allow jurisdictions to replace traditional precincts with vote centers, while others have implemented this change statewide. New Mexico’s statute regarding the use of vote centers explicitly mandates that vote center locations have a broadband internet connection, in order to use e-pollbooks. The requirement for a secure connection is common and found in other state statutes governing vote centers, further emphasizing the need for competent infrastructure. Thus, while broadband opens the door to more accessible voting options, not every jurisdiction has the resources to meet these technological requirements.

Maricopa County, Arizona, is a prime example of how connectivity can improve election administration and increase access. The county used broadband technology to adopt a vote center model, effectively eliminating out-of-precinct provisional voters. As a result, provisional ballots dropped from 52,173 in 2016 to 18,310 in 2020, reducing ballots rejected due to wrong-precinct voting and the amount of postelection processing. With e-pollbooks at these vote centers, administrators can rapidly update voter registration addresses, leading to more accurate and up-to-date voter lists. This kind of shift toward a more modern and accessible voting system exemplifies one of the many ways that connectivity can benefit election security and foster civic engagement.

Connectivity also promotes voting access by enabling voters to readily find detailed and accurate information about candidates, policies, and voting procedures, including how to register or update registration records. It also allows voters to contact their local election departments more easily if they have questions or concerns about the process. Furthermore, connectivity can improve election administration by enabling poll workers and local election officials to rapidly communicate about any urgent problems, from security threats to logistical snags. This kind of seamless coordination through an open communication channel, made possible by robust broadband connectivity, has the potential to markedly improve the voting experience for voters and election workers alike.

Conversely, disparate internet access can exacerbate existing barriers to voting, particularly in rural and historically underserved communities. The lack of internet access in Arizona’s tribal lands, for instance, hinders the use of e-pollbooks and reduces the options available to communicate important information with voters. Without sufficient broadband infrastructure, e-pollbooks may be unable to instantly access and verify the most current voter records, which could result in some voters having to cast provisional ballots.

Additionally, because addresses on tribal lands are often not standardized,footnote2_llrRbXkWlxda2For example, the Navajo Nation, one of the largest tribal nations in the country, spanning over 27,000 square miles across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, faces unique voting challenges. Navajo communities often span across county boundaries, making it harder for voters to determine the correct location to cast their ballots due to overlapping borders and the absence of street addresses on reservation territories. The reliance on P.O. boxes, often located in different states or counties, further complicates the voting process, making registration and ballot access difficult for many residents. Voting Rights and Elections Administration in Arizona, Hearing Before the Subcomm. on Elections, H. Comm. on Administration, 116th Cong. (2019) (written testimony of the Honorable Jonathan Nez, President, The Navajo Nation), https://docs.house.gov/meetings/HA/HA08/20191001/110040/HHRG-116-HA08-Wstate-NezJ-20191001-U1.pdf. some voters are assigned to polling locations that are far away from their homes. A number of those voters have tried to vote at their closest polling place, only to find that they can’t vote a regular ballot at that location. In 2020, Arizona’s Apache County, most of which is made up of tribal lands, experienced the state’s highest rate of provisional ballot rejections, primarily due to voting in incorrect precincts. Moreover, inadequate internet connectivity impedes access to vital voting information, including registration details, polling locations, and ballot drop-off points. And it limits the ability to get in touch with election offices, deepening the challenges faced by voters on reservations.

Poorer and rural areas often lack the broadband infrastructure necessary to offer more technologically advanced options. To remedy this, the federal government recently allocated billions of dollars in grant funds to close the digital divide through initiatives administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). This sweeping development presents important opportunities for productive partnerships between NTIA officials, state broadband agencies, and election administrators. Many states, under the leadership of their designated state broadband agency, are obtaining feedback from state and local stakeholders as they draft plans for how to invest these funds.

Regrettably, election officials have largely been absent from these important discussions.footnote3_lk5LJTlB1Vvj3Although many election officials have not been actively involved in these critical discussions, we can draw insights from states like Louisiana, where the planning processes included active participation and input from the secretary of state’s office, engaging them as essential stakeholders. Louisiana Office of Broadband Development & Connectivity, BEAD Initial Proposal Volume 2, December 7, 2023, 134, https://connect.la.gov/media/a40jyhpl/louisiana-ip-vol-2-final.pdf. It’s critical for the long-term health of our democracy that they be brought in so that these federal resources can be invested in our election infrastructure.

Understanding the NTIA and BEAD Program 

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Department of Commerce, supports state, local, and tribal governments working to expand broadband connectivity and foster digital inclusion. Recognizing connectivity’s crucial impact on the vitality and accessibility of key societal sectors, including commerce, education, and civic participation, the NTIA supports initiatives such as the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. This program funds collaborative projects among states, territories, communities, and key stakeholders to build necessary infrastructure and broaden high-speed internet access nationwide. With a focus on reaching unserved and historically underserved regions, these efforts seek to bridge the digital divide, with all 50 states and U.S. territories eligible for this funding.

Although many states and territories have already submitted their BEAD proposals to the NTIA for review, including election administrators in ongoing consultative discussions presents an opportunity to explore the benefits of expanded broadband connectivity for voters and the voting process.

Integrating Elections into the Conversation

The NTIA can support election infrastructure through various means. Among its top priorities, the BEAD Program emphasizes its objective of “deploying and/or upgrading broadband network facilities to provide or improve service to an eligible community anchor institution.”

Upon addressing broadband needs in unserved and underserved regions, states and territories with BEAD funding could strategically prioritize the allocation of resources to multifunctional community institutions — places such as schools and libraries, already deemed by the NTIA as community anchor institutions, that are also common voting centers — to maximize the impact of these investments. Alternatively, in their state plans, state broadband agencies could categorically classify all voting locations as community anchor institutions, recognizing their role in providing essential community services to local voters. This classification would ensure dedicated support for election infrastructure and could enhance the voting experience, particularly in underserved communities. It would also support the diligent efforts of county governments, which typically fund the resources essential for administering safe and secure elections.

Bolstering election infrastructure with these funds closely aligns with the directive stated in the White House Executive Order on Promoting Access to Voting issued on March 7, 2021. This order emphasizes the importance for agencies to “consider ways to expand citizens’ opportunities to register to vote and to obtain information about, and participate in, the electoral process.”

Election Official Engagement in Broadband Expansion

On December 6, 2023, the Brennan Center for Justice submitted a public comment to the Arizona Commerce Authority (ACA) regarding Volume II of Arizona’s initial BEAD Program proposal. We urged the ACA to involve election officials in these discussions to guarantee that Arizona’s BEAD funding implementation strategy adequately incorporates considerations for election infrastructure and recommended that state officials recognize designated polling locations as key community anchor institutions.

In addition, earlier this year, Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes and the Brennan Center met with NTIA representatives to discuss the essential contributions of secretaries of state and election administrators across the nation in delivering safe, secure, and accurate elections, and the significant role that broadband connectivity could have in bolstering these efforts.

Election officials, deeply familiar with and dedicated to their communities, stand as invaluable advisors, and they should be included in the discussions about the investment priorities for this funding that are currently underway. The NTIA should encourage state and territorial governments receiving BEAD funds to proactively engage and collaborate with state and local election officials during the review of implementation proposals. It could direct its representatives in each state or territory to incorporate election infrastructure into their discussions about community anchor institutions and to involve state and local election authorities as key community stakeholders in these deliberations. Election officials can also leverage this opportunity to identify and get in touch with relevant points of contact for their state or territory to begin engaging in these conversations.

Furthermore, election officials can collaborate with state broadband offices to utilize connectivity maps from the National Broadband Availability Map or the Federal Communications Commission to guide the strategic placement of polling locations for optimal access. In areas with tribal communities, officials should partner with liaisons from the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program to understand connectivity on tribal lands.

Broadband expansion has untapped potential for election administration. The BEAD Program, with its historic investment in high-speed internet access, provides a framework through which existing and potential voting locations can be supported as vital hubs of community and civic engagement. This consideration would not merely be administrative — it would be a strategic move to equip these critical nodes in our democracy with the technological infrastructure necessary to safeguard and secure every vote.

Keely Varvel is the assistant secretary of state of Arizona.

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