In the United States, states and local election jurisdictions are largely responsible for administering federal elections. States regulate activities like voting methods and setting time periods for voting on or before Election Day. Among other things, local jurisdictions register eligible voters, design ballots, arrange for polling places, and count ballots.
Federal laws regulate various aspects of election administration, including voter registration and protecting the voting rights of individuals with disabilities and certain minority groups. Various federal agencies have roles and responsibilities for implementing these laws and assisting states and localities in managing election administration. Federal agencies also have roles in administering campaign finance laws.
There are benefits and challenges to how states and local election jurisdictions administer various processes. There are also opportunities to strengthen federal efforts.
The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) serves as an information clearinghouse on elections issues and provides resources to help election officials administer federal elections. It also administers elections-related grants. Most recently, it administered $400 million in CARES Act grants to help states conduct elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there were issues with how states and the EAC categorized about 20% of the grant spending, making it hard to consistently determine how states spent these funds. The EAC should assess its administration of CARES Act grants and implement lessons learned to improve grants administration.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has helped state and local election officials secure online voter registration systems, voting machines, and other election infrastructure since 2017. CISA has been working to more fully address challenges it identified in its prior election assistance efforts to help protect election infrastructure from physical and cyber threats.
Examples of Election Assets Subject to Physical or Cyber Threats
Federal law generally requires all polling places for federal elections to be accessible to all voters, and that these polling places have a system for casting ballots that is accessible for people with disabilities. However, election officials and advocates have reported challenges like physical obstacles to entry, voting equipment not being set up properly, and some voters facing difficulties marking paper mail ballots. The EAC, as part of its information clearinghouse role, has created a variety of resources to assist election officials in ensuring accessible voting for people with disabilities. It is working to collect and incorporate feedback from election officials on the usefulness of these resources.
Polling Place with a Make-shift Ramp That Could Impede Voters with Disabilities
Federal law requires that states provide certain voter registration opportunities, such as when an individual obtains a driver’s license. States can also provide additional opportunities, such as online registration. Establishing infrastructure for online registration requires time and money, but can generate savings and enhance accuracy, such as by reducing the need for local election officials to manually process paper registration forms. Both states and local jurisdictions also work to maintain accurate voter registration lists, but have struggled to ensure that these lists capture all changes in registrants’ information (such as when people do not notify the U.S. Postal Service when they move).
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is responsible for civil enforcement of campaign finance law. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is responsible for investigating and prosecuting criminal violations of campaign finance law. Various types of campaign finance-related activities are subject to federal law and enforcement by both the FEC and DOJ. While the agencies coordinate activities related to campaign finance, until recently they had not updated their memorandum on coordination to help ensure consistent and effective coordination when enforcing campaign finance law.