Determining the cost of the administration of national elections is difficult. In 2001, the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (VTP), in a comprehensive report about election administration in the United States, stated:
Even the most basic facts about the cost and finance of elections in the United States are unavailable, and the most basic questions remain unexamined. It is not known how much we spend on election administration overall in the U.S. each year. It is not known on what funds are spent. There has been little analysis of how and how well local governments provide election services. Each of us has some sense of what we get—a stable and successful democracy. But there are clearly problems that can be remedied. How much will improvements in this system cost?1
There is general agreement that this assessment remains applicable.
The VTP conducted a survey of local elections officials in an attempt to determine the cost of conducting the 2000 presidential election. Based upon the information received from respondents, the cost was estimated to be $1 billion. The survey was repeated by the VTP in 2013 on behalf of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, and the result was of a similar order of magnitude: around $2.6 billion.2
There is little scholarly literature on the subject. The literature typically comments on the lack of comparable data, not only across states, but also often within government units across time.3 The U.S. Census Bureau’s “Census of Government” does not inquire specifically about election administration. The National Conference of State Legislatures recently reported that only four states (California, Colorado, North Dakota, and Wisconsin) collect statewide cost data.4
As a general matter, localities are responsible for financially supporting elections, but how that works in practice varies across states. States typically contribute funds to support election administration. In general, states tend to be most financially and administratively responsible for voter registration systems and localities tend to have financial and administrative responsibility for staff, personnel, rent, etc. In many states, the cost of voting technology is shared between the state and localities. Some states (e.g., Rhode Island) centralize the purchase of voting technology.5
The federal government has played a role in the funding of elections. Federal funding for elections has been episodic and typically focused on particular projects, such as support for the purchase of new voting equipment or for security enhancements. As discussed, federal funds have been disbursed by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC). There have been discussions of an annual appropriation to states to assist with the “federal portion” of the state and local election administration, but the proposal has not gained traction.
The federal government provides support for the EAC and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). That funding is currently less than $10 million/year.6 The federal government also provides support for the Federal Voter Assistance Program (FVAP). That funding ranges from $3.5 million to $4.0 million per year. These allocations represent the only ongoing support provided by the federal government for election administration.
3 That literature includes Montjoy, Robert S., “The Changing Nature . . . and Costs . . . of Election Administration,” Public Administration Review, 2010, Vol. 70, No. 6, pp. 867-875 and Hill, Sarah, “Election Administration Finance in California Counties,” The American Review of Public Administration, 2012, Vol. 42, No. 5, pp. 606-628.
5 For recent discussions on the topic of funding elections, see the three reports released by the National Conference of State Legislatures (“The Price of Democracy: Splitting the Bill for Elections;” “Election Costs: What States Pay;” and “Funding Elections Technology”) in 2018.