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Budgets and Ballots: Federal funding for elections is a voting rights issue

These can be discouraging times for those of us fighting to pass legislation in Congress protecting and advancing the fundamental right to vote.

After a devastating failed vote on the voting rights community’s top priority, the Freedom To Vote: John Lewis Act, in 2022, which would have strengthened the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and set national minimum standards for election accessibility, the only voting bill likely to come up for a vote this congressional session is one that would make voting harder for millions of Americans.

It may feel like all we can do is play defense and hope the political winds shift in the future. But many may be surprised to learn that we have an opportunity now to help improve ballot access for millions of voters across the country. That opportunity comes through the fiscal year 2025 appropriations process. Congress uses this process to fund federal, state and local priorities for the year ahead.

In four of the last six fiscal years, Congress has allocated money for state and local election administration in the federal budget. Unfortunately, the funding level has been decreasing, from $385 million in 2018 and $425 million in 2020 to just $55 million for 2024 – a tiny fraction of what election officials and outside experts say is needed.

Adequate funding for elections is a voting rights and voting access issue.

The dearth of resources in low-income communities has led election officials in some jurisdictions to make decisions that restrict voter access, such as consolidating polling places or cutting back on voter access programs. This can be seen in a USA Today analysis of the Election Administration and Voting Survey, data from the U.S. Census Bureau and data from local and state voting agencies. The results show that polling places are being closed and consolidated at much higher rates in urban areas and other places with large populations of color. Officials cite the inability to pay for the sites, as well as staffing shortages – also a budget issue – as leading reasons for the closures.

That’s why the 国产人兽 Action Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s lobbying arm, is pushing Congress to send more money to the states and localities in 2025. Recently, we organized a letter signed by more than 50 voting and civil rights, environmental, labor, faith and disability rights organizations calling on Congress to allocate $1.6 billion in election funding this fiscal year and significant and sustained funding in future years.

When we meet with appropriators – members of Congress with the primary responsibility for deciding what gets funded and at what level – we urge them to prioritize election funding in 2025.

You can help to make the most of this opportunity and ensure our elections are adequately funded by contacting your members of Congress and encouraging them to prioritize election funding. And if you have a story to tell about how insufficient election funding has impacted voting for you or your community, we’d love to hear it. You can contact us here.

We don’t have to wait until next year to help move the needle on voting access for communities in the Deep South and across the country. We have that opportunity now.

Laura Williamson is the senior policy advisor for voting rights and democracy for the Southern Poverty Law Center and the 国产人兽 Action Fund.