Reviews | What if taxpayers could tick a box on their returns to support the election?

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Matthew Weil is director of the election project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Following the Watergate scandal, policymakers in 1974 created what became the Presidential Election Campaign Fund (PECF), allowing taxpayers to tick a box on their tax returns to allocate $1 of their taxes ($2 for married couples) to public campaign funding. (Today, that amount has increased to $3 for individuals and $6 for co-filers.)

Unfortunately, no major presidential candidate since Republican John McCain in 2008 has accepted public funding for the general election because it comes with spending limits. As a result, more than $412 million now remains unspent in the PECF, which will no doubt grow as applicants continue to avoid spending limits.

During this time, the administration presidential elections – the casting and counting of votes – is severely underfunded, leaving us with outdated technology and equipment, understaffed polling stations and overworked officials. Rather than watching the PECF continue to hoard unspent funds, let’s turn it into a dedicated funding source to revitalize election administration and help achieve the $400 million needed each year to secure our democracy.

Covid-19 has created new state and local administrative challenges, with officials needing resources to manage the influx of mail-in ballots while funding personal protective equipment for poll workers, thousands of gallons of disinfectant for hands and other unexpected expenses. Recognizing the new financial burden on states, federal policymakers provided them with $400 million through the Cares Act of March 2020, but that amounted to only about $3 per voter and was barely enough to cover scanners. at high speed, the ballot boxes, risk allowance for poll workers and protective equipment to ensure the smooth running of the elections.

Going forward, the prospects that policymakers will take much more ownership to support elections look uncertain at best. President Biden has proposed $15 billion in election funding over the next 10 years, including $10 billion in state grants for equipment and personnel and $5 billion for the U.S. Postal Service to support the postal vote. But the idea that Congress will provide anywhere near that amount is fanciful. The fiscal year 2022 omnibus budget bill that lawmakers signed into law in March provided just $75 million in Help America Vote Act election security grants.

One way to avoid the unpredictable nature of federal appropriations for election administration and the need for private funds is to put election administration funding in the hands of the American people.

The PECF is the only federal tax levy that gives Americans direct control over how the federal government spends taxpayers’ money. Dedicating the PECF to election administration would allow voters to invest in our country’s democratic infrastructure, which would have a measurable impact on the security and accessibility of elections.

True, only 3.3% of taxpayers checked the box on their tax return last year, down from 28% in the 1970s and generating just $23 million. But that was for public campaign finance, not election security. In a March poll, 77% of respondents agreed that “we need to do more to make our elections safe, secure and accessible,” and the same percentage supported federal investments in elections.

If 28% of taxpayers ticked the box again, but this time to fund election security, it would generate nearly $200 million a year. If lawmakers increased premiums to $5 for individuals and $10 for couples, and 28% of taxpayers continued to check the box, it would generate nearly $400 million a year.

Consistent federal funds would help states and localities strengthen their electoral infrastructure. A revamped PECF could play a vital role in these efforts.

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