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$250M for election security is a fraction of what's needed

Photo illustration of a vote button with a piece taken out as if it's a pie chart.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered his support for a $250 million election security fund. By experts' estimates, that's only around 10% of what states will need between now and 2024 in order to protect elections from security threats.

The big picture: The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania says it will cost $125 million to replace unsecure voting machines in its state alone, meaning half the new funds could be spent on one small aspect of election security in just one state.

Driving the news: McConnell added his name last week to a bipartisan $250 million amendment to a pending appropriations bill, an abrupt change from his earlier thwarting of election cybersecurity bills.

The bare minimum cost of securing the U.S. election system is $2.153 billion over the next 5 years, according to an estimate by the Brennan Center at NYU Law School. Lawrence Norden, director of the Electoral Reform Program at Brennan, told Axios it will likely cost a similar amount every 5 years after that.

By the numbers: By the Brennan estimates, it will cost:

  • $734 million to purchase voting machines that use paper ballots for the last few states, including Pennsylvania, that haven't already switched. Paper leaves an unhackable record of voter intent.
  • $486 million for secure voter registration systems.
  • $833 million for state and local election cybersecurity, including $55 million in county-level cybersecurity staffing, assuming 1 employee for every 10 counties, and $9.6 million for website security.
  • $100 million for post-election audits.

This isn't just a voting machine issue: The public debate about election security often gets falsely reduced to swapping out machines without paper ballots for machines with them.

  • "People find it easy to wrap their heads around paper ballots," said Norden. "But there are a lot of other ways that elections can be attacked that have nothing to do with voting machines. If you look at successful attacks across the world, they target voter databases and reporting systems."

Many of those costs repeat: "The equipment ages out. Voting machines have to be replaced every 10 years," Norden said.

  • Staffing costs, web security and other expenses recur year-round, year after year.
  • "People think that on Election Day, they just go and cast a ballot," said Earl Matthews, chief strategy officer at the security firm Verodin and a retired Air Force major general. "But that process actually began many months earlier."

The federal government doesn't have to bear the full cost of cybersecurity. In fact, most states would prefer some degree of autonomy in how they run elections.

  • But states can't realistically fight off nations without a little more help.
  • "The federal government has a responsibility to share," said Christopher Deluzio, director of policy at University of Pittsburgh's cyber center, who has written frequently about the cost of securing elections.

The politics: A GOP aide stressed to Axios that with the $250 million, the total amount of election security funding allotted to the states since 2018 exceeded $600 million.

  • An earlier $380 million, already accounted for in the Brennan estimate, wasn't entirely new — it was money that was designated for election systems grants from legislation passed after the hanging chad debacle in Florida in the 2000 election.
  • The House has sent more substantive plans to McConnell's Senate. The For the People Act, the first bill passed by the House this session, allotted nearly $1.6 billion for election security — including $1.5 billion for equipment and $55 million for "bug bounty" programs.

The bottom line: $250 million is a down payment on security, not the full bill.