At a Pivotal Moment, Democrats Failed to Modernize Elections

At the center of the failure was the Brennan Center, which bucked local election officials and told Congress to focus on matters other than election funding.

The U.S. Capitol building is reflected off an ambulance in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. The Senate cleared a three-week funding bill on a 65 to 27 vote, averting a U.S. government shutdown that loomed after Feb. 18 and giving lawmakers more time to finish a full-year spending plan. Photographer: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The U.S. Capitol is reflected off an ambulance in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 18, 2022. Photo: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Throughout 2020, as then-President Donald Trump issued baseless claims of voter fraud, local election officials called on the federal government to spend more to ensure a secure election season. Turnout was expected to break records; the pandemic had upended voting plans and safety protocols; and cybersecurity threats mounted. Leaders were acutely aware of the vulnerabilities in their aging election technology: Thousands of counties, for example, still ran their voting machines on Windows 7, an operating system so old it no longer receives routine security updates.

Congress did authorize $400 million to run elections in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, with funds permitted for expenses like buying personal protective equipment and hiring temporary staff to process the increase in absentee ballots. But those funds ran out quickly amid the costly primaries. Election officials, national security experts, and business leaders nationwide sent Congress letters throughout the spring and summer stressing why that figure could only represent a down payment ahead of the November election. A study of swing states conducted by the right-leaning Washington, D.C. think tank R Street Institute found that the election support afforded by the CARES Act provided just a small fraction — 10 to 18 percent — of what was needed.

But Congress didn’t budge. And so in an unprecedented move, private philanthropy stepped forward to plug the holes. A Chicago-based nonprofit called the Center for Tech and Civic Life administered nearly $350 million in philanthropic grants during the 2020 cycle, reaching almost 2,500 counties across 49 states. A majority of that funding was donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, and every eligible election department that applied for funding was approved, according to the group. “Despite election officials basically begging our federal government for assistance, that money never came through,” Liz Howard, a senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, said weeks after the election. “Congress really failed our election officials.”

Fortunately for democracy, soon after Democrats took control of Congress and the White House, the party was laying plans to provide robust funding for election infrastructure.

But now, more than a year later, the politics that surround election funding have changed dramatically, though the need for modernizing and securing election systems has not. Conservatives, angry and suspicious that Facebook and Silicon Valley tilted the scales to help Democrats, have moved to ban future philanthropic donations for elections. In Wisconsin, a special counsel appointed by Republicans released an interim report accusing Zuckerberg of breaking bribery laws with the grants. More than a dozen Republican-controlled states, including Georgia, Florida and Arizona, have passed new restrictions on private donations to election offices since November 2020, and more states are currently drafting similar legislation. Absent new sources of government funding, these bans could yield cuts to election locations and election workers in the midterms.

In its recently passed $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill, Congress included just $75 million for election security. That’s a fraction of what lawmakers authorized in 2020 and an amount experts say is nowhere near sufficient to address the needs ahead of the next election.

At the center of this failure is the Brennan Center, an influential liberal think tank and advocacy organization. Based in New York City, the Brennan Center rarely gets public scrutiny, but it plays an outsize role in the strategic direction of the movement pushing for voting rights and election reform. That flows partly from its massive war chest, which has skyrocketed over the last decade: Between 2010 and 2020, its net earnings grew from $196,000 to $58 million. Its assets jumped from $8 million to $90 million.

That financial firepower, coupled with the credibility in Washington that it has built over the years, gives the Brennan Center effective veto power over the voting rights advocacy coalition it leads. In Congress, revisions to election and voting laws are often met with the question, “What does the Brennan Center think?”

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30:  Spencer P. Boyer (L) and Michael Waldman, President, Brennan Center, attend the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law's expanded DC office launch on April 30, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

Spencer P. Boyer, then-director of the Brennan Center’s Washington office, left, and Brennan Center President Michael Waldman, right, attend the Washington, D.C., office launch on April 30, 2019.

Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images

The legislative dance has always involved inside players and outside pressure, but two interlocking trends have significantly walled off outsider influence and consolidated insider power. Partisan polarization means that there are few rogue bipartisan gangs to be pulled together, and the consolidation of power by congressional leaders has muted the influence of rank-and-file members and even committee chairs. K Street has rushed to fill that void — but so too have a select handful of major nonprofits, whose deliberations and strategic decisions have taken on exponential importance.

This made the Brennan Center’s decision to pull back on the effort to fund elections all the more consequential. Its political attention and lobbying shifted to passing the Free­dom to Vote Act, the Democrats’ comprehensive voting rights bill that would, among other things, expand voter registration, ban partisan gerrymandering, weaken state-level voter ID requirements, and restore preclearance, a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Brennan Center played a key role in crafting the omnibus legislation, including its earlier iterations like the “For the People Act.”

In a letter sent to congressional leadership in late July, a coalition of 19 national advocacy groups, including the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Mi Familia Vota, urged Congress to allocate $20 billion for election infrastructure, citing the hundreds of local election officials, mayors, and secretaries of state who had begged for that amount earlier in the month. “As the individuals and leaders closest to the administration of fair and secure elections, they have collectively called for federal support in meeting the immense needs they face,” the national groups wrote. “We write to add our voices to that important ask.”

The Brennan Center declined to sign.

“It was one of the most jaw-dropping moments of my professional life.”

“It was one of the most jaw-dropping moments of my professional life,” said one election reform lobbyist whose organization signed the letter and who requested anonymity to describe the coalition’s private discussions.

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, said his organization “felt that the dollar amount that the letter was asking for did not make sense based on our expertise and research and policy analysis … that it was too much,” though he could not say what a better figure would be. “My colleagues on this who are aligned certainly thought it was too much, and we thought the dollar amount was too high to be asking for at that time,” he added.

The timing of the ask also didn’t strike them as appropriate, Waldman said. “It was in the heat of the fight for the [For the People] Act, which we regard as the most important voting rights legislation in half a century. … I thought that [the request] was a distraction and a detour from the very hard fight needed to pass voting rights legislation.”

His comments about the size of the request for election funding reflected a departure from the Brennan Center’s previous public statements, a fact noticed by both this reporter and the organization’s press shop. The following day, a Brennan Center spokesperson, Alexandra Ringe, who had been listening in on our interview, called to ask if I would consider taking Waldman’s statements about the size of the election funding request off the record, saying they would not go over well with their coalition partners. I declined.

In a subsequent email, Ringe wrote that Waldman had “misremembered the decision-making related to the sign-on letter” and that fear of distracting from the Freedom to Vote Act was the sole factor in the Brennan Center’s decision not to sign. Waldman himself followed up to say that he had misspoken in our previous conversation, reiterating that the organization chose not to sign the letter “because of our concerns … that it would distract from the final push for voting rights legislation.”

Because of the wildly varying ways that counties tabulate their costs, the precise amount of funding election officials need is not clear. “What we do know from three years of surveys of local elections officials nationwide is that consistent and reliable funding is the most commonly mentioned issue,” Paul Gronke, the founder of the Elections & Voting Information Center at Reed College, told me. “We all recognize that what we are currently spending is far too low and funding is too irregular. … But hard numbers are difficult to obtain because of the diverse ways that budgets are managed.”

The last major federal investment in election funding was the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which authorized $3.5 billion for state upgrades. But it took years for that funding to get appropriated, and the costs and threats to elections have only gone up since then. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study recently estimated that the “current level of spending puts elections at near the bottom of spending for public services, ranking approximately the same levels as spending by local governments to maintain parking facilities.”

Advocates for more funding say that reliable appropriations can go toward things like bolstering election audit systems, patching cybersecurity vulnerabilities, upgrading voter registration databases, and investing in equipment like ballot sorters and envelope stuffers. The advent of election official retirements expected before the 2024 cycle is adding even more pressure, as hiring and training new staff will get more expensive.

The Election Infrastructure Initiative, a project of the Center for Tech and Civic Life and the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, puts the tab to fully modernize U.S. elections at $53 billion over the next 10 years. The initiative has called on Congress to allocate less than half of that, $20 billion. That ask has been endorsed in letters by secretaries of state, mayors, and election administrators. In a February poll by Data for Progress, nearly three-quarters of respondents supported congressional spending to upgrade state and local voting equipment and security systems.

Many local election leaders have struggled to understand why the Brennan Center — a group with the ear of influential Democrats in Congress — dropped prioritization of election funding over the last year, particularly after helping elevate their concerns during the pandemic. Moreover, while the Freedom to Vote Act would push many election reforms that are needed and overdue, those changes would not come cheap. Advocates worried that chaos could come from a slew of new unfunded mandates.

“They’ve been great [at] fleshing out the more liberal position on voting rights, but when it comes to election administration … they haven’t really wrestled with the implications of what they advocate for.”

Jessica Huseman, one of the country’s leading voting rights journalists, detailed many of these concerns publicly last spring in a Daily Beast op-ed. The For the People Act “was written with apparently no consultation with election administrators, and it shows,” Huseman wrote, noting that it was packed with deadlines and obligations that would be impossible for election officials to meet. “The sections of the bill related to voting systems … show remarkably little understanding of the problems the authors apply alarmingly prescriptive solutions to.”

The Brennan Center quickly issued a defense of the bill it had helped draft, publishing a response to Huseman’s piece on its website. The center defended the amount authorized in funding for upgrades and maintenance. But “there have been millions in authorized funding that has never been appropriated,” Huseman, who currently serves as editorial director of Votebeat, told me. “Looking specifically to voting, the funding promised in the Help America Vote Act took 15 years to actually become appropriated, even though the states were on the hook for the requirements long before this. This is the origin of the anxiety for state election administrators, and I think it’s a well-founded concern.”

“Brennan Center gets way over their skis on election policy,” said one national election reformer who has partnered with the organization on research and requested anonymity because their organization shares some of the same funders as the Brennan Center. “They’ve been great [at] fleshing out the more liberal position on voting rights, but when it comes to election administration … they are not that connected to the election officials community … and they haven’t really wrestled with the implications of what they advocate for.”

“The charitable answer is they didn’t want to have a fight about money until after the bill had passed, but you can easily pass the bill and not win the money,” said the election lobbyist, who was shocked that the center didn’t join the July letter. “There’s a few folks who work there like Larry Norden [the senior director of Brennan’s Elections and Government Program] who have done good work on these issues, but they couldn’t get it through to their higher-ups.”

Martin Luther King III, center, Yolanda Renee King, and Arndrea Waters King, left, walk across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Peace Walk in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. The family of the late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. today is calling on the Senate and President Biden to enact federal voting rights legislation. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Demonstrators calling on the Senate and President Joe Biden to enact federal voting rights legislation walk across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Peace Walk in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 2022.

Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For those hoping that 2021 would yield new federal commitments for election funding, things took a turn for the worse late last summer.

Throughout July, as Senate Democrats prepared their $3.5 trillion social spending request, lawmakers assured state and local election officials that their proposal would include billions for election funding. A Politico story published just four days before the package was unveiled confirmed that lawmakers were eyeing as much as $15 to $20 billion for that purpose and felt confident that they could deliver, even as their voting rights bill remained stalled.

But at the eleventh hour the funding was pulled, at the urging of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who had “abruptly” changed her mind, as Huseman reported in a detailed ticktock of the negotiations. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., the author of the For the People Act, had convinced Pelosi that authorizing election funding would reduce their leverage to pass his bill, the same argument the Brennan Center used to justify not signing the coalition letter.

Leading negotiations in the Senate, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was angry. She felt blindsided by Pelosi’s move, per Huseman’s sources, even as spokespersons for both House leaders defended the last-minute cuts. The spokespersons told Huseman that election funding would require more “safeguards” to ensure it couldn’t be used for voter suppression, but top federal elections experts say there is no history of misspending those funds. “After all,” Huseman wrote, “it costs far less money to close polling locations and remove drop boxes, and state legislatures across the country have been doing this without any additional spending since the 2020 election.” (Klobuchar, Pelosi, and Sarbanes did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment for this story.)

“All of the money that’s been released has been for specific purposes. It’s all been audited.”

“All of the money that’s been released has been for specific purposes,” Kathleen Hale, a political scientist who directs the Election Administration Initiative at Auburn University, told The Intercept. “It’s all been audited; I’ve been doing this for the last 15 years, and there’s absolutely nothing going on like that.”

While it was becoming too late in the negotiations process to pivot to funding elections in the infrastructure deal, the Democrats’ Freedom to Vote Act was looking increasingly doomed in the Senate. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., made it clear that she was not willing to gut the filibuster — a legislative move that would have been required to ensure the bill’s passage. A Punchbowl News survey of senior congressional staffers found that even among Democratic staff, just 12 percent thought the bill had a shot.

Some leaders urged Congress to push forward with a narrower bill, abandoning demands like public financing of elections, to which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had expressed strong opposition. Others within the voting rights coalition faced immense pressure to stay quiet when they raised concerns about technical language in the statute, saying the Brennan Center in particular warned that even private deliberations could derail passage of the bill itself.

Noticing the deadlock on Capitol Hill, some groups began to discuss alternatives. In January, for example, the Bipartisan Policy Center released a report in collaboration with the centrist and right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, Issue One, R Street Institute, and Unite America.

Their proposals recommend federal funding to states that meet a series of minimum voting standards but eschew federal mandates, in the hopes of garnering GOP support. The coalition urged steady, annual funding for elections but left the door open on exactly how to determine the formula.

Others had been pushing a narrower bill since last spring. In March 2021, professor of law and political science Rick Hasen published an op-ed in the Washington Post urging for legislation to protect voting rights directly and abandonment of the “wish list of progressive proposals” that stood little shot of survival in the Senate. “At the moment, it seems more likely that nothing will become law before the 2022 elections than that H.R. 1 will,” Hasen wrote, referencing the For the People Act. Edward Foley, the director of the Election Law program at the Ohio State University, wrote another Post op-ed two weeks later, arguing that the “priority should be ensuring passage of what’s absolutely essential for securing federal elections that enable voters to choose the officeholders who get to exercise power.”

And still others noted that the For the People Act would do little to actually stop the most immediate threat to elections that arose from the 2020 cycle: subversion. The New York Times editorial board made this point in June, writing that “Democrats in Congress have crafted an election bill, H.R. 1, that is poorly matched to the moment.” The For the People Act, the Times board said, ”attempts to accomplish more than is currently feasible, while failing to address some of the clearest threats to democracy, especially the prospect that state officials will seek to overturn the will of voters.”

The Brennan Center rebuffed criticisms that the For the People Act was too big. The scope of the legislation, Waldman stressed, was what gave it its power. “It enabled a movement to form of diversity and breadth that we have not seen on this issue in my 40 years working on democracy issues,” he told me. “This was the most important civil rights legislation in half a century … [and it] doesn’t always succeed on the first try.”

Narrower bills have narrower constituencies of support, Waldman wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last spring. He dismissed both Hasen and Foley as “some pundits” and said that keeping the legislation his organization helped craft together was the best way to ensure its chances of becoming law. While Waldman noted proudly that the bill claimed support of “civil rights groups, good government groups, labor unions, many election officials, and others,” it was not clear who among those left-leaning constituencies he thought might disclaim backing if Congress had decided to pare it down.

But the Brennan Center’s stance on the savviness of avoiding compromise and standing in coalition with partners stood in tension with its reticence to make big funding asks, including for election security. The Brennan Center discouraged Congress from whittling down the voting rights legislation, even as experts warned of unfunded mandates that could create new security and logistical threats for election workers.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 13: President Joe Biden speaks to the press after attending a meeting with the Senate Democratic Caucus on Capitol Hill, on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. Biden has called on his fellow Democrats to do away with the 60-vote threshold for advancing legislation in the Senate and pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom To Vote Act (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden speaks to the press after calling on Democrats to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 13, 2022.

Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Advocates for new infusions of election funding have turned their sights to the White House, in the hopes that President Joe Biden can pressure Congress to act quickly before the midterms.

In mid-December, a coalition of 14 secretaries of state — including from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, and Arizona — sent a letter to Biden requesting that he include $5 billion for election infrastructure in his fiscal year 2023 budget, as part of a commitment of $20 billion over 10 years. (Last year Biden did not include funding for elections in his administration’s budget.)

In February, members of Congress joined in. Democratic Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia, Colin Allred of Texas, and Tom O’Halleran of Arizona led 43 of their colleagues in a letter to Biden requesting that he include $5 billion in his next budget. Thirty-three Democratic senators, led by Klobuchar and Richard Durbin of Illinois, followed suit two weeks later. Advocates also pressed Biden to mention election funding in his State of the Union address, to no avail.

Advocates were heard, sort of. On Monday, Biden released his 2023 budget and called for $10 billion over the next decade for election infrastructure upgrades — half of what activists requested. While hailed as a positive step, it offers no guarantees: Congress often ignores presidential budget asks.

Meanwhile, as the voting rights package remains in limbo, the new year has brought momentum to the issue of addressing election subversion, or the threat that the true winner of an election will not be declared the winner. While many defenses against election subversion happen at the state and local level, from a federal standpoint lawmakers could make tweaks to an 1887 statute known as the Electoral Count Act, which governs the end stages of a presidential election. At present, the Electoral Count Act could allow Congress to object to counting votes from a state, and it is also vague on the responsibilities of a vice president in counting electoral votes. McConnell has suggested that he’s open to tweaking the law, and a bipartisan group of senators have been meeting to discuss a path forward.

“When funding is inadequate it creates opportunities … for people to try to manipulate things without oversight.”

Election funding and election subversion are not unrelated issues. While immediate fears about subversion have been tied to rogue election clerks and state legislators, poorly funding elections heightens risk too. “Inadequately funded elections can lead to foreign or domestic actors tampering with our voting technology, voter registration databases, or machines that count ballots,” said Hasen. “And when funding is inadequate it creates opportunities for mistakes to happen and creates opportunities for people to try to manipulate things without oversight.”

The Brennan Center, for its part, hasn’t abandoned the election funding issue. In January, Gowri Ramachandran, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, testified before the House subcommittee on cybersecurity about election risks and suggested that Congress could also provide support for the physical safety and security of elections personnel and elections offices, though she did not suggest a specific figure. Earlier this month, the Brennan Center published a resource estimating the cost of preventing insider election threats over the next five years to be about $316 million.

But the clock is ticking for more serious investments. Following the recent passage of the House budget on March 9, the Election Infrastructure Initiative issued a critical statement, blasting it for insufficiently funding physical and cybersecurity measures for local election departments. The $75 million that lawmakers approved was also far less than the $500 million the House included in its original spending proposal. The Brennan Center did not issue a statement on Congress’s allocation for election funding, though individual leaders, including Norden and Derek Tisler, an attorney for Brennan’s Democracy Program, criticized the $75 million amount as too small.

Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center, maintains that the organization took the right approach last year and will look for “every opportunity” it can this year to pass strong voter protections, “with eyes wide open about the challenges.”

“There’s this ‘Big Lie’ movement out there trying to undermine American democracy that is scary and alarming, but I think there is a democracy movement that has been formed in response … that is vibrant and diverse and angry,” Waldman added. “This movement is not done and this issue is not done. We push forward.”

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