In May, the New York Times asked: “Will Americans lose their right to vote in the pandemic? . . . with limited funding and time running out, will the option [to vote by mail] be available?”
We’ve got two months, maybe three, to secure US elections in November. Election officials are already at full throttle trying to keep up with voters’ requests for access to Vote By Mail; they need everything from counting equipment and tracking software to secure drop boxes and websites. Public funds, caught in partisan gridlock and cratering budgets, seem unlikely to arrive in time. Philanthropists could step in and save the day.
For $1.2 billion, private funders could help ensure every American can safely vote from home in November.
That’s a fraction of the roughly $430 billion Americans give to charity each year. A single billionaire family, whether it’s Jeff Bezos, Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet, Michael Bloomberg, or Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, could fund the whole shebang without breaking a sweat. The signatories of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge have committed to give the majority of their wealth to philanthropy, but many are not close to meeting their commitment. What better way to get a jump on giving down their more than $1 trillion net worth than by helping ensure American democracy survives coronavirus?
But you don’t have to bankroll the full amount to help save democracy. With $100,000 you could help a state create an online ballot request portal or track all its ballots, or conduct a public education campaign that reaches tens of thousands of voters. It should be possible to do all of these things as tax-deductible giving, because they serve the charitable purposes of nonpartisan voter participation, election administration, and voter education.
Without speedy investment in local election infrastructure, though, Americans’ confidence in elections is in peril. If you have some money to spare, here are six ways to help, listed in order from cheapest to most expensive.
1. Enable voters to securely request a ballot online—$3 million
Allowing voters to request an absentee ballot online gives access to voters who don’t have a printer to print the application or an envelope and stamp to mail it back. A secure digital application process also offers benefits to election administrators in the form of increased election integrity (transferring information digitally eliminates human errors due to illegible handwriting) and cost savings (digital transactions with voters save election administrators $0.50 to $2.34 per transaction compared with paper). A digital system also offers the opportunity for the state to automatically correct mistakes before they get entered into the system (for example by checking the address against the USPS database and notifying the voter if it doesn’t match).
Twenty-six states don’t have an online request portal:
- Seven also don’t offer online voter registration, so they would need to build a full-service portal (Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Dakota, Wyoming). Depending on exact specs, a complete portal could cost around $250,000 per state.
- Nineteen already offer online voter registration and could add ballot requests to their existing portals (Alaska, Alabama, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Tennessee, West Virginia). Depending on the existing online portal, adding a digital ballot request could cost around $50,000 per state.
Philanthropists could fund—or tech companies could donate their time—for projects to help Secretaries of State or state Election Commissions build user-friendly and secure online ballot request systems. While they’re at it, funders could encourage partners to create an API, as Pennsylvania has done, so that voter empowerment groups can interface with the state portal and drive more voters to register and request mailed ballots. Kentucky developed and offered online ballot request capabilities this year in less than a month, so it could be possible to get online ballot request portals up and running in time for November in all 35 states that don’t yet have them.
2. Pre-pay for comprehensive ballot tracking—$4 million
Comprehensive ballot tracking is an effective means of securing Vote By Mail elections. Two US companies—Ballot Scout (a nonprofit) and Ballot Trax (a for-profit)—offer ballot tracking services that work in much the way that Amazon tracks packages, monitoring ballot location every step from the election administrator’s office to the voter and back. Voters can get text updates about their ballot’s progress, letting them know when it was mailed, arrived at their address, received back by election administrators, their signature was verified and the ballot accepted to be counted. Ballot tracking services also give election administrators real-time data about the movement of every ballot in their jurisdiction.
While most states have at least some ballot tracking capabilities, in many cases it is not comprehensive enough to give voters peace of mind or prevent debacles such as what occurred in Wisconsin’s primary election (thousands of ballots were delayed at a mail processing center, not delivered until after the election, and rendered invalid). While Wisconsin does offer limited tracking, a comprehensive system would have made voters and election administrators aware of the delay in time to fix it. (The Wisconsin Elections Commission is now in discussions with Ballot Scout.)
Comprehensive tracking is surprisingly economical. Depending on the number of registered voters and how much tracking infrastructure the state already has in place, it will cost $50,000 to $100,000 per state, or a few thousand dollars per county, to implement comprehensive ballot tracking. For example, the state of Michigan, with nearly 8 million voters, would pay $60,000 to $70,000 per year; Pasco County, Florida, with 350,000 registered voters, pays $4,000 per year. Some states and counties already comprehensively track all ballots, so if we assume an average of $80,000 per state to cover any jurisdiction that is not already tracking ballots, that adds up to $4 million per year.
Here’s how it could work: philanthropists could approach Ballot Scout and Ballot Trax and offer each of them $2 million. Those two companies could then approach secretaries of state (maybe via the National Association of Secretaries of State) or state elections commissions, offering their services for free in 2020 (because all their operations have been prepaid by philanthropists). Most secretaries of state would jump at the offer and start hammering out contracts and putting systems in place. In states where the secretary declined to sign up for statewide tracking, Ballot Scout and Ballot Trax could approach local election administrators with the opportunity to comprehensively track ballots in their jurisdiction.
3. Donate drop boxes—$150 million
In states that conduct elections completely “by mail,” most voters don’t actually return their ballots by mail—they bring them to election centers or secure drop boxes.
In states that conduct elections completely “by mail,” most voters don’t actually return their ballots by mail—they bring them to election centers or secure drop boxes. Conveniently placed drop boxes help voters return their ballots on time, because they don’t have to worry about their states’ unique postmark rules. Drop boxes can be particularly important for voters on tribal lands where postal service is spotty. Ideally, counties should have at least one drop box for every 15,000 voters.
Drop boxes cost up to $10,000 each to purchase and install, plus up to another $4,000 per election year to maintain. For about $150 million, philanthropists could supply boxes and maintenance for all American voters in 2020.
Philanthropists could approach drop box vendors such as Vote Armor. A large philanthropist could pay for enough boxes for the whole country to have a secure and convenient place to return their ballot in November, or a local philanthropist could pay for boxes in their own county or state. Either way, they could pay for boxes, installation, and maintenance on the condition that the vendor places the boxes with counties in need in time to be used in November. The vendor could then approach counties and offer them boxes for free for the first year.
4. Donate high-speed equipment—$200 million
High-speed centralized scanners and tabulators, as well as ballot sorting and signature verification equipment, could make a tremendous difference for timely and accurate vote counting this November and beyond. Nearly 1,000 US counties have more than 25,000 registered voters but no high-speed vote-counting equipment. This lack of equipment could delay election results. For example, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, has no high-speed tabulators so it took 10 days to count votes in the primary compared to just one day for Allegheny county which has high-speed equipment.
Delays could be especially acute in the ten states that prohibit election officials from starting to process ballots and verify signatures before election day (Alabama, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia, Virginia, Wisconsin).
Each scanner costs around $100,000, plus service, and machines that sort envelopes and verify signatures cost even more. For around $200 million, philanthropists could provide appropriate equipment to every jurisdiction with more than 25,000 voters.
Philanthropists could approach vendors and prepay for machines plus service contracts (for maintenance and election worker training) on the condition that the vendor places the machine with a county with insufficient equipment and get it running and workers trained in advance of the November election. Contact information for registered vendors is here. While they’re at it, philanthropists could insist on underwriting systems that can count ranked ballots, such as Dominion’s Democracy Suite, or Hart’s Verity 2.0. Vendors could then approach counties and offer them a contract for free, or a longer contract at a reduced rate.
Each secretary of state typically has a list of certified systems, so funders would need to make sure they were prepaying for approved machines if they wanted to assist specific states. They could focus on prepaying for machines in states with a severe lack and archaic state laws preventing them from starting processing before election day: Michigan has no high-speed equipment; Pennsylvania has 49 counties with more than 25,000 registered voters, but no centralized equipment; Wisconsin has 15 jurisdictions with more than 25,000 registered voters but no centralized equipment.
5. Pre-pay for all elections-related postage—$360 million
One of the biggest costs that election administrators and voters will face this year is postage. Many states are mailing absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. The voters have to mail the application back. Then election administrators will mail out educational materials and ballots. Voters will mail their ballot back (or drop it at a secure location, see #5). Fair, equitable access to voting means lowering hurdles for voters—including postage. Sixteen states make sure postage is not an obstacle to casting a ballot by providing postage paid return envelopes for voters.
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Assuming 150 million Americans vote this year (more than in 2016) and each requires three mailings costing an average of 80 cents each, the total elections-related postage could add up to $360 million this year. Many election administrators don’t have enough in their budgets.
Philanthropists could approach the US Postal Service and arrange to pay for all election related mail in 2020. The Postal Service can already identify election mail, so philanthropists could take on the burden of paying for this mail category. Each jurisdiction makes its own arrangements for designing and printing ballots and envelopes, but so long as it is categorized as USPS election mail, the postage could be prepaid. By covering it all as one huge bulk mailing, there might even be efficiencies compared to each election administrator arranging to pay for mailings within their jurisdiction, or each voter purchasing an individual stamp.
(In twelve states—Ohio, Michigan, South Dakota, Colorado, Florida, Alaska, Nebraska, North Dakota, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois, Montana—state law requires voters to pay for postage, so philanthropists couldn’t help voters there until lawmakers decide to stop burdening voters.)
6. Make sure voters know how to vote from home— $450 million
While a steadily increasing number of Americans votes by mail, for many it will be a new experience. And some states aren’t going out of their ways to make it easy for voters—around the United States voters are obliged to print out application forms (though many don’t have a printer) and mail them (though many do not stock stamps) then fill out the ballot and sign the envelope (though the steps might not be clear to them). While the ballot will include instructions, states that already vote by mail have learned the hard way that voters needed to hear the message many times before it became familiar.
Election officials have limited budgets for public outreach to let voters know how they can vote safely during the coronavirus pandemic.
Election officials have limited budgets for public outreach to let voters know how they can vote safely during the coronavirus pandemic. Public education is especially critical in states that previously had very little experience with mailed ballots and are now seeing an explosion in demand, such as Georgia (where the recent primaries resulted in chaos at the polls), Michigan, and Pennsylvania (both of which only recently allowed all voters to request a ballot by mail). Philanthropists could help run public education campaigns, sending out mailers, buying television and radio spots, texting and phone banking, and promoting information on social media. Facebook could have a special role to play by giving free promotional ad space to vote by mail education materials this year.
Working closely with election officials, philanthropists could help ensure the message they are spreading is on point. They could also help fund local groups that work closely with election officials to educate voters in their communities. For example, the Seattle Foundation funds groups to perform nonpartisan voter outreach.
Public education campaigns might spend from 50 cents to $2.50 per person. Funders could generate impactful voter education by spending $2 per voter and aiming to reach all roughly 225 million registered voters in the United States for a total of $450 million. Local donors could bite off a smaller chunk of that, working with their local officials to make sure voters in a particular county or state know how to safely vote this year.
Securing elections in 2020 and beyond
Fully funding this entire list would cost $1.2 billion. Some of those investments—ballot tracking and postage—would only help with 2020 and election administrators would need to find the funds to continue tracking or paying for postage in future years. Other investments—secure online portals, drop boxes, and high-speed equipment—would aid US elections for many years to come. Voter education would help voters know what to do during this critical pandemic year, and having voted from home once, they’ll feel more comfortable doing it again.
A billion dollars is too much to raise on Go Fund Me. But it’s not too much to raise, by any stretch of the imagination. It’s less than 0.3 percent of total US charitable giving in 2018. It’s only 12 percent of what experts project will be spent on political campaigns in 2020.
Besides, philanthropists don’t have to pay for the entire total to make a gargantuan difference. It’s all possible to do bite by bite, state by state, and county by county, in a thoroughly decentralized and ad hoc way. In short, it’s a perfect opportunity for philanthropy.
You’re right: it is somewhat appalling that we might need plutocrats to save democracy by helping ensure the security and safety of our elections in time. But the sad truth is that our governments have been starving election infrastructure for years. A public response this year seems unlikely to be sufficient. And again, we have just months to remedy the situation: US election officials need help, now.
Kristin Eberhard ,Director, Climate and Democracy, is a researcher, writer, speaker, lawyer, and policy analyst who spearheads Sightline Institute’s work on democracy reform and on climate action. She researches, writes about, and speaks about elections systems and democracy reform, with particular expertise on Vote By Mail and proportional representation. Eberhard lives in Oregon, an all-Vote By Mail state. She is available to discuss tested, safe, fair COVID-19 election practices, state by state. For interviews, speaking engagements, and media inquiries, contact Anna Fahey. Find all Eberhard’s latest research here.