Today, the Maryland Association of Election Officials (MAEO) and the Montgomery County Board of Elections sent letters urging that a pending funding request for new electronic pollbooks follow the same 50/50 state/county funding split as other comparable equipment since 2001.
The State Board of Elections plans to replace electronic pollbooks — which are used to check in voters at polling places across the state — in time for the 2022 election cycle. While the State is responsible for 50 percent of the costs for “acquiring and operating the statewide voting system,” SBE does not consider pollbooks as part of the statewide voting system, and thus plans to invoice county governments for 100 percent of the costs to acquire the necessary equipment and software — more than $26 million over the next three years.
According to a Department of Legislative Services budget analysis:
The project’s total cost has decreased $810,274 from what was anticipated in the Governor’s Fiscal 2021 Budget Books. Despite the overall decrease, there has been a substantial shift in the planned cost share resulting in an increase in local funding. The Governor’s Fiscal 2021 Budget Books anticipated that the project to be mostly borne by local governments but that the State would contribute approximately 31% ($9.3 million) toward the project’s total cost. However, the Governor’s Fiscal 2022 Budget Books have reduced the State share of the cost to approximately 11% ($3.3 million).
SBE did not provide an explanation for why more costs were shifted to local governments but indicated that the State will equally share personnel and project management costs, while local funds will cover the entirety of equipment and software. In addition to the higher share of costs, the revised funding stream also frontloads more costs. In fiscal 2022, local contributions will be nearly double the amount projected during the 2020 session.
According to the MAEO letter:
As you know, the State of Maryland invoices county governments for half of its cost of acquiring and operating the statewide voting system and for certain costs related to mail-in voting based on each county’s voting-age population. However, such cost-sharing is not employed for other voting equipment and systems that the state mandates the county’s use in administering elections, such as the statewide voter registration database and the electronic pollbooks used to check voters in at polling places across the state.
Typically, the costs of these systems are invoiced in full to the counties. However, we believe, as you do, that the pollbooks are an essential component of the voting system and the same cost-sharing formula should be employed to equitably and fairly share the burden of purchasing this essential equipment.
Since 2001, the State has relied on uncodified language from one bill to govern the funding responsibility between the State and counties for voting machines and related systems. However, the statutory language is vague, and SBE often makes arbitrary decisions that shift administrative and cost burdens onto local Boards of Elections, whose operations are supported by county funding.
MACo this year advocated for legislation to update election laws with an emphasis on fairness, transparency, and accountability. The bill, which did not advance, would have required SBE to take necessary and appropriate steps to provide transparency and accountability for transactions that oblige county funds and afford ample opportunity for input from local governments and Maryland voters. The bill also sought to clarify and codify the 20-year precedent that governs state and local election funding to provide stability and predictability for State and local budgets.
According to the Montgomery County Board of Elections letter:
Even if the equipment is financed over three years as anticipated in the current state budget, counties will be charged more than $10 million in FY 22 and Montgomery County’s share will be $1.83 million, nearly half of our Board’s operating budget of $3.8 million. Despite this high proportion of our budget, we have no say in choosing the new pollbooks.
While we agree with the need for new pollbooks, the budget for Montgomery County Government should not be expected to pay the full cost of this mandated statewide system on our County.
The funding request is expected to be placed before the Board of Public Works in September.
Stay tuned to Conduit Street for more information.