Top Issues of 2021 Session: Elections: Funding Fairness and County Role

With the 2021 Legislative Session rapidly approaching, MACo is profiling some major issues that stand to gather attention in the General Assembly’s work. Here, we preview potential reforms to the administration, procedures, and financing of elections in Maryland.

Counties administer and fund elections at the local level, overseeing polling places and coordinating poll workers every two years. In order to mitigate public health and safety concerns amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Larry Hogan and the State Board of Elections (SBE) this year made a number of changes to election dates, procedures, and administration, many of which resulted in significant and unforeseen costs.

The state and local fiscal impact of the 2020 elections is discussed by the Department of Legislative Services in its annual compilation of Issue Papers:

Some of the resultant unanticipated costs have been paid for by federal funds, and a budget amendment prior to the general election addressed the remaining needed funding to an extent.

However, in the lead up to the presidential general election, the full impact of the election administration changes on the State budget was not known due to a lack of clarity regarding cost-sharing with the local boards of elections, the extent to which federal funds might cover costs, and the total amount of costs that were not funded by the budget amendment.

While there are provisions in State law that establish the balance of funding for certain election-related costs, the extent to which other election-related costs are the responsibility of the counties, the State, or shared by counties and the State is ill-defined.

Although state statute mandates that counties pay half of the postage costs for mail-in ballots, Governor Hogan’s directive for SBE to send all registered voters mail-in ballot applications — rather than mail-in ballots — for the General Election resulted in unforeseen and substantial costs for local boards of elections, whose operations are supported by county funding.

According to SBE, the cost to prepare and mail ballot applications totaled $5.6 million, with the return postage alone costing up to $3 million. Without state resources to offset these large costs, the order represents a significant unfunded mandate on local governments.

While the State Board of Elections voted unanimously to approve MACo’s request for additional state funding to pay for mail-in ballot applications, the funds were never approved by the Department of Budget and Management.

Under state law, counties have no choice but to fund these costs – competing for limited local funds against public health, education, public safety, roadway maintenance, and other essential public services.

2021 MACo Legislative Initiative: Ensure Funding Fairness and County Role in Elections

The State Board of Elections (SBE) often makes unilateral decisions that place substantial administrative and cost burdens onto local Boards of Elections, whose operations are supported by county funding. Without proper resources to offset substantial costs for equipment purchases/leases, equipment storage and transportation, staff compensation and training, and other overhead, these state-mandated expenditures represent significant unfunded mandates on county governments.

MACo advocates to codify the 20-year precedent that voting machines and related systems be a split funding responsibility between the State and counties, require the State to fund salary increases for its employees overseeing elections at the local level, and ensure proper local input for large contract/procurement decisions that oblige county funds.

More background on the impact of COVID-19 on state and local election costs, administration, and procedures can be found in previous Conduit Street coverage, and in the DLS Issue Papers:

MACo on General Election: State Should Pay Extra Ballot Costs

Board OKs MACo’s Request for Additional State Funding for Mail-In Ballot Applications

State Board Seeks Additional $20M for Nov Election

Local Officials Make Final Appeal to Avoid “Catastrophic Failure” on Election Day

Hogan Demands Update on Mail-In Ballots, Polling Places for Nov Election

Local Election Directors: Emergency Pollworker Shortage Will Lead to Long Lines, Voter Confusion

Conduit Street Podcast: Holding Elections Amid a Pandemic

DLS Issue Papers: Impact of COVID-19 on Election Administration Costs

Helpful 2021 Session Links:

Maryland General Assembly website | 2021 Dates of Interest | Issue Papers
Re-opening procedures: Senate | House of Delegates | House Committees
Follow MACo’s advocacy efforts on MACo’s Legislative Tracking Database
MACo’s 2021 Priorities  |  MACo’s 2020 Wrap-Up