The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What if taxpayers could check a box on their returns to support elections?

Forms from the Internal Revenue Service for 2018 federal tax returns. (Keith Srakocic/AP)
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Matthew Weil is director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Elections Project.

In the wake of the Watergate scandal, policymakers in 1974 created what became the Presidential Election Campaign Fund (PECF), letting taxpayers check a box on their tax returns to allocate $1 of their taxes ($2 for married couples) to publicly fund campaigns. (Today, that amount has risen to $3 for individuals and $6 for joint filers.)

Unfortunately, no major presidential nominee since Republican John McCain in 2008 has accepted general election public financing because it comes with limits on spending. As a result, more than $412 million now sits unspent in the PECF, which will undoubtedly grow as candidates continue to shun spending limits.

Meanwhile, the administration of presidential elections — the casting and counting of votes — is seriously underfunded, leaving us with antiquated technology and equipment, understaffed election offices and overworked officials. Rather than watch the PECF continue to accumulate unspent funds, let’s convert it into a dedicated funding source to revitalize election administration and help meet the estimated $400 million needed annually to secure our democracy.

Covid-19 created new state and local administrative challenges, with officials needing resources to handle the influx of mail-in ballots while funding personal protective equipment for poll workers, thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer 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 boiled down to only about $3 per voter and was hardly enough to cover the requisite high-speed scanners, ballot drop boxes, poll worker hazard pay and protective equipment to ensure a smooth election.

Moving forward, prospects that policymakers will appropriate significantly more to bolster elections seem 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 staff and $5 billion to enable the U.S. Postal Service to support mail-in voting. But the notion that Congress will provide anywhere near that amount is fanciful. The omnibus budget bill for fiscal year 2022 that lawmakers enacted in March provided only $75 million in Help America Vote Act election security grants.

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

The PECF is the only federal tax checkoff that gives Americans direct control over how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars. Dedicating the PECF to election administration would enable voters to invest in our country’s democratic infrastructure, and that would have a measurable impact on election security and accessibility.

To be sure, just 3.3 percent of taxpayers checked the box on their tax returns last year, down from 28 percent in the 1970s and generating just $23 million. But that was for the public financing of campaigns, not election security. In a March poll, 77 percent of respondents agreed that “We need to do more to make our elections safe, secure, and accessible,” and the same percent supported federal investments in elections.

If 28 percent of taxpayers again checked the box, but this time to fund election security, that would generate almost $200 million per year. If lawmakers raised contribution amounts to $5 for individuals and $10 for couples, and 28 percent of taxpayers continued to check the box, that 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 such efforts.