Corrected March 29 | The Biden administration called for spending $10 billion over the next decade to beef up the country’s elections infrastructure as part of the fiscal 2023 budget proposal released Monday.
Along with providing “a predictable funding stream for critical capital investments and increased staffing and services,” the budget proposes to expand the Postal Service’s capacity in “underserved areas” and to increase vote-by-mail initiatives — including making ballots postage-free.
Since they took full control of Congress and the White House at the beginning of last year, Democrats have tried several times to pass bills to expand voting rights and overhaul elections, but the efforts stalled in the Senate.
The $10 billion proposal is less than the $20 billion the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life urged Congress to provide last spring. Tiana Epps-Johnson, the group’s executive director, said costs for paper ballots, staffing and mail have surged since then.
“Our recent polling shows bipartisan support for federal funding for local election officials. President Biden is showing leadership and making the case that we must invest in state and local election departments. He’s right and Congress should follow suit,” Epps-Johnson said in a statement.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who last month led a group of 32 other Democrats calling on Biden to include $5 billion in election security grants for the next fiscal year, said it was “critical” to invest in elections.
“From ensuring state and local election officials receive significant and reliable federal resources, to making it easier for voters to cast mail-in ballots, to strengthening the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, these resources represent a significant investment in our democracy,” she said in a statement.
Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, an independent citizens’ lobbying group, said that much money would be “transformative” for states holding elections.
Federal funding for election administration has been sporadic, with Congress offering grants some years but not others. Ahead of the 2018 election, appropriators provided $380 million for grants through the Election Assistance Commission. After passing one bill ahead of the 2020 election providing $425 million, lawmakers added another $400 million in response to pandemic-related costs of suddenly having to run elections by mail.
The House passed a fiscal 2022 spending bill providing another $500 million last year, but the final omnibus spending package enacted earlier this month included just $75 million for grants and $20 million for EAC operating expenses, a $3 million increase over the fiscal 2021 enacted level.
Albert said states often save the grant money they receive from the federal government for emergencies or for other unexpected reasons.
“Officials don’t have confidence that more money will be coming. They don’t feel free to use it in a way that could expand access,” Albert said, praising Biden’s call for sustained funding. “That would really allow election officials to create programs that really maximize access … without worrying that they are spending money to expand a program but then next year have to roll it all back.”
Expanding vote-by-mail programs in underserved areas could help people who live in rural areas and on Native lands vote more easily, Albert added.
The proposal could also solidify a Postal Service policy to deliver ballots regardless of whether they have postage on them. Currently, enforcement of that policy varies across the country, she said.
“Adding something like this to law would ensure that that policy is actually followed,” she said.
The budget seeks $367 million, or $101 million more than fiscal 2021, for civil rights protection across the Justice Department, including police reform, voting rights enforcement, and hate crimes prosecution. There is also $18 million for the FBI’s civil rights investigations.
Todd Ruger contributed to this report.
This report has been revised to correct Sylvia Albert’s name.