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State sticks counties with surprise election tab

fr electionmoneyCounties in North Carolina are being forced to shoulder the burden of electronic voting machines alone after the General Assembly turned down federal aid that would have greatly offset the costs.

Counties must pay yearly for the maintenance of electronic polling machines, poll worker training and software license fees, among other election related costs. To ease the financial burden on counties, the federal government sets aside millions of dollars for each state to cover some of the costs related to electronic polling machines.

All that the federal government asks is that state governments contribute some matching money in return for the federal funds. In North Carolina’s case, the state is required to pitch in $664,000 to tap into the about $4.1 million specifically earmarked for North Carolina.

However, when crafting the state budget Republican lawmakers left out the necessary $664,000 needed to get the federal help. And, now, taxpayers in all 100 counties are having to foot the entire bill themselves to perform required annual service to their counties’ voting machines.

“It’s really going to cost the county,” said O.L. Yates, chair of Haywood County’s election board. “It’s a little bit of a fiasco for the state.”

Haywood County’s Board of Commissioners recently allocated $41,000 to cover the unexpected cost.

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“(The state’s decision) had an adverse affect because it directly impacted our budget in a negative way,” said Mark Swanger, a Democrat and chair of the Haywood county commissioners. “I don’t understand why you wouldn’t take advantage of the federal government trying to going give you money. It does not strike me as a good business decision.”

The cost that each county must now shoulder on the backs of its taxpayers depends on its size and the number of voting precincts it has — the more voters and the more precincts, the move voting machines it has that must be serviced each year. Mecklenburg County, for example, will have to shell out about $400,000 to keep its machines running this year. Smaller counties like Swain County will pay about $15,000.

“The really tragic thing about this is it’s going to come out of the taxpayers funds from the county budget,” said Jack Hudson, president of the Election Boards Association of North Carolina.

Critics are decrying the decision as penny-wise but pound foolish. Saving the state $644,000, only to collectively costing the state’s 100 counties millions of dollars, doesn’t make sense. If it was merely a matter of coming up with the matching money, the counties could have pitched in — the $400,000 expense to Mecklenburg alone would have nearly covered the state’s match to tap the federal pot.

The Haywood commissioners voted unanimously to approve the $41,000 allocation but made a point of expressing their disappointment in footing the bill for another unfunded mandate.

“We haven’t even started the fiscal year, and we have already hit our fund balance,” said Haywood Commissioner Kevin Ensley, the only Republican on the board. “I am not really happy about it.”

But, it had to be paid for somehow, Ensley added.

Indeed, counties were required to transition from paper ballots to computerized voting machines following the 2000 Bush v. Gore election debacle.

To ease the financial burden on counties, Congress set aside funds under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to be dolled out to states, and in turn to county election boards, to cover the maintenance cost of electronic polling machines, poll worker training and software license fees.


Penny-pinching back fires

Why Republican lawmakers left the matching money out of the budget is unclear. If it was intended as a moral statement against federal spending, it fell short of its desired effect.

Leaving the federal money on the table won’t go toward lowering the deficit or decreasing taxes. Instead, North Carolina’s share will simply be allocated to the other 49 states that now will see a slight bump in the amount they were slated to receive.

Meanwhile, North Carolina residents are having to pay double their fair share for election costs, Yates said. Their federal taxes have already gone into the federal pot of voting funds. Now, they will foot the bill for their own counties’ costs through local taxes.

“It just seems funny to me that we have to pay taxes twice on this,” Yates said.

Yates opined that members of the Republican-led General Assembly were more concerned about their personal re-election campaigns than the cost of the elections, which they have passed on to their constituents.

“I think they wanted to keep spending as low as possible so in campaign season they can say that they held the line on the budget,” Yates said.

N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, laid the final decision on the Republicans, saying he did not know exactly why the money did not find its way into the final budget.

“They really controlled the action on that and the vote,” Rapp said.

But to N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, the state didn’t allocate the matching funds for a very simple reason.

“We just didn’t have the money,” said Davis, a Republican from Franklin. “That’s not good news, but it’s what it is.”

N.C. Rep Roger West, R-Marble, said he did not know why the voting funds were missing from the budget but added that he would have liked the money to be include.

“I know it’s been an asset out here in our rural counties,” West said. “It takes a lot of effort to put on the elections.”

This year, it is critical to ensure that the machines don’t break down since it’s a presidential election year that will see higher than average voter turnout nationwide. The loss of funds will also likely affect how many early voting sites each county has, and therefore effect voters access to the polls.

“If we had gotten the HAVA funds, then we would have the number of early voting places we would anticipate necessary,” Hudson said.

Accepting the HAVA funds is usually such a given that Hudson and other members of the N.C. Election Boards Association had already emailed prominent state officials in the General Assembly thanking them for the annual matching money.

“This is a very prudent use of available resources at a crucial time,” the June 10 email stated. “Our counties face significant expenses for the July run-off election, and we also must prepare for a large voter turnout in the fall.”

Fifteen days later, Hudson rescinded the thanks.

“I thanked you for including the funds necessary to release $ 4.1 million dollars of (federal) money, a return of almost $7 for each $1 spent. Unfortunately at the last minute somehow, this was deleted from your budget,” Hudson wrote.

He went on to discuss the cost to the counties and pleaded with state leaders to reinstate the money.

Then about two weeks ago, it looked like they might. The N.C. House passed an amendment to reinsert the HAVA funds into the budget. But, what would happen with the budget was still up in the air. The governor vetoed the General Assembly’s budget, and for a while, it seemed there was time to include the funds in a renegotiated budget.

In the end, however, the governor’s veto was overridden, and the HAVA remained absent from the finalized budget — “a disappointment” to Rapp.

Only an unlikely special session of the General Assembly to amend the budget could result in a different outcome.

“It’s safe to say it’s done,” Rapp said.

However, Sen. Davis tried to paint a rosier picture of the situation, telling Swain County commissioners at a county meeting he attended Monday that there is still a chance that the HAVA funds could come through in the end, depending on budget discussions between the N.C. House and Senate.

Davis neglected to say, however, that the budget has already been signed, sealed and delivered, and both chambers are out of session until early 2013 unless a special session is called.


How much will it cost the counties?

Haywood County: $41,000

Jackson County: $15,000

Macon County: $17,000

Swain County: $13,600

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