Congress’ Present to Election Officials Last Year? A Lump of Coal
While many of us spent the week before the holidays wrapping up presents and projects, spending time with family and friends and looking back on an eventful 2022, Congress was embroiled in its own annual holiday tradition: 11th-hour federal budget negotiations.
After all the typical stops and starts, with agreements forming, breaking apart and then forming again at a frenetic pace, lawmakers were able to reach a deal to fund the federal government. As an advocate for government responsiveness, let me start by saying that I’m glad Congress was able to keep the lights on for 2023. However, essential resources for ensuring the government is responsive to the people were given up as the deadline for a deal closed in.
In the final days of Democratic control, Congress had initially set aside $400 million to bolster American election systems. That money — which enjoyed bipartisan support — would be used to hire more election workers, update election equipment, open new polling locations, improve administrative processes and much more.
But that number was and is unsatisfactory; it simply fails to meet the need on an operational level. It was even more disheartening to see this funding falter because the party in power at the time fancied themselves the lone champions of a besieged democracy. Democrats in Congress seemed to take a vow of silence by the time they had to put their money where their mouths were — a glaring departure from the soaring rhetoric and 30-second ad spots the public was subjected to in service of cultivating their heroic image.
To our immense dismay, this incomplete — but no less necessary — investment in American democracy came to be the high-water mark of the negotiations. When the dust settled, the $400 million that was originally set aside had shrunk to a meager pittance of just $75 million for the 2023 fiscal year, a veritable lump of coal under the trees of election advocates and officials across the country.
To be sure, $75 million is, in a vacuum, quite a lot of money. But we have to evaluate this number in reference to the need that exists. By that metric, $75 million is woefully inadequate. To give you a better sense, the state of California spent $200 million administering the 2021 gubernatorial recall election. It cost the city of Los Angeles alone $53 million to conduct just that one election in one county. When it comes to investing in American democracy, we need to think long term and across multiple election cycles in all 50 states. Experts estimate that states would need around $50 billion over the next 10 years to fully modernize and secure the nation’s election infrastructure.
Congress’ failure to invest even the bare minimum in our democracy will have a ripple effect throughout the next several election cycles, at least. The supply chains and procurement processes for state and local election administration are complicated, and it takes time for improvements to be carefully implemented. Failing to dedicate even the baseline payment towards American democracy in the 2023 budget will have consequences that snowball through the 2024 presidential election and beyond into the 2026 midterms.
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The troubling trend of election officials resigning from their posts is likely to continue and perhaps worsen without the resources to hire more workers or to improve the pay for current officials whose jobs have become much more difficult over the past several years. This in turn will lead to polling locations shutting down, longer lines at the locations that remain open and an overall greater inefficiency in election administration.
Over the past two years, state legislatures in red states have made good on their promises to advance bipartisan pro-voter legislation, including in Kentucky and South Carolina. And Republicans are right to support these changes, particularly when Republican candidates may, in fact, be the ones to benefit the most at the ballot box. They simply need their counterparts in Washington to catch on.
The 118th Congress has new leadership and, with that, a new opportunity to move forward on this bipartisan issue and pass legislation to ensure our elections are secure, efficient and accessible — and not leave another lump of coal for election officials at the end of next year.
Sam Oliker-Friedland is the executive director of the Institute for Responsive Government.