A Different Kind of Investment
In the early morning of Nov. 8, 2022, polling locations across Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, began to run out of ballots. Scrambling, poll workers tried to fill the gap by providing copies or printer paper to distressed voters, to no avail. By the end of the day, nearly one-third of precincts in Luzerne ran out of paper, and eligible voters in Luzerne County were intolerably denied their right to vote as a result of being turned away or voting on invalid ballots.
In March, during a U.S. Committee on House Administration hearing on the matter, members of Congress and witnesses wanted to know why there weren’t enough ballots and who was the cause in this particular situation. As I listened to the hearing, however, I was struck by the critical pieces that were largely missing from the discussion. In addition to “who forgot to order the paper?,” we must also ask a more fundamental question: Why isn’t there enough funding, infrastructure and well-trained staff in place to ensure such a simple supply chain failure wouldn’t, or couldn’t, happen in the first place? The paper ballot shortage was more than just a local breakdown: It is exactly the kind of avoidable crisis that voters and election administrators will experience again unless we prioritize long-term investment in election infrastructure.
There were early warning signs in Luzerne County, including chronically high staff turnover and the subsequent lack of institutional knowledge, as well as critical supply chain issues with the ballot paper manufacturer. Testimony at the hearing indicated novice poll workers were forced to try to resolve the shortage with little guidance or oversight.
Let’s be clear: Election workers are genuinely the heroes of our democracy. They are public servants who live in our communities, are our neighbors and friends and work tirelessly to ensure that all of us can exercise our fundamental right to vote and have faith that our system is safe, secure and accurate.
But they are also human and are more vulnerable to errors when they are overworked, understaffed and undertrained. Luzerne County was not the first county to experience malfunctions, nor will they be the last, if we don’t take this seriously. This is not just a local problem; other election errors have occurred in every corner of the country. A quick search of the last year turns up local errors from Arizona to Arkansas, from Georgia to Oregon and everywhere in between.
If we truly want to prevent these types of breakdowns, we need to make a long term and substantial investment in our democracy. Election officials are chronically understaffed and underpaid. Security, technology and training are not one time expenditures. And government procurement processes take time. Short-term band aids are no longer an option. Last year, Congress allocated a meager $75 million nationally to state and local election infrastructure. In contrast, experts estimate that states need roughly $50 billion over the next 10 years to fully secure and operate the nation’s election infrastructure.
Hopefully federal policymakers are starting to understand, and failures like that in Luzerne County should unfortunately help illustrate the critical need. Last month, the Biden administration requested $5 billion in new election funding over the next 10 years, in their recently released FY2024 budget. The administration is correctly looking at this as a long term investment that takes long-term planning. This would allow election officials to plan forward critical investments in election infrastructure, including increasing staff and wages, mandatory and comprehensive training, continuity of operations (COOP) planning, updating equipment and security and other urgently needed improvements.
Funding should be provided directly to local election administrators as well as to state officials to ensure that we strengthen all layers of infrastructure and have adequate staffing at all levels. Best practice standards for training, COOP planning and quality control measures should be developed at the state level and can be customized and implemented at the local level and compliance should be mandatory. But none of this can and will happen without our significant long-term financial investment in our democracy, including increased staffing and support for our election officials — a small price to pay to ensure that all of us can exercise our fundamental right to vote.
The future of secure, resilient and professionally run elections nationwide hinges upon long-term public investment. Without these critical investments, we will see the same troubling spiral as in Luzerne, pushed to the breaking point. With the 2024 and 2026 elections right around the corner, it’s more important than ever to invest in critical infrastructure. Let’s ensure that the crisis in Luzerne County remains an outlier, rather than a forecast, ahead of 2024.
Ashish Sinha is the chief of staff for the Institute for Responsive Government.