MACo: Fund New Pollbooks 50/50 State/County

MACo Legislative Director Kevin Kinnally this week sent a letter to the Board of Public Works 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.

In 2006, Maryland passed legislation requiring all polling places to be equipped with electronic pollbooks to verify the names and addresses of eligible voters. Chapter 61 of 2006 required the Governor to include in future years’ budgets sufficient State general funds to cover 100 percent of the costs to provide each polling place with electronic pollbooks.

The State Board of Elections (SBE) plans to replace its e-pollbooks — which are now more than 15 years old  — 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 therefore plans to invoice county governments for 100 percent of the costs to purchase the necessary equipment and software — more than $26 million over the next three years.

While MACo recognizes the urgent need to implement a new pollbook system — an essential element of the statewide voting system, county governments join the Maryland Association of Election Officials to urge the State to honor the same 50/50 funding split as other comparable equipment that has been in place since 2001.

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.

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.

From the MACo letter:

In the years since its passage, the one-half funding split has been honored for a wide range of equipment purchases, with state budgets including equal amounts of state general funds and special funds (reimbursable by county invoicing). MACo believes that the equipment request before the State clearly merits the same consideration.

MACo as an organization stands ready to work with the Board of Public Works, the State Board of Elections, and the Administration to bring about a mutually beneficial solution that reaches the needed level of service and respects county budgets and processes. Maryland Counties urge your support in continuing the longstanding split of funding responsibility for elections, and your support for the pending request including appropriate state general funds.

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.

The Board of Public Works — a three-member panel including Governor Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot, and State Treasurer Nancy Kopp — reviews state agencies’ projects, contracts, and expenditure plans.

Details of the funding request are in today’s lengthy Board of Public Works Agenda. The item (printers for the State’s e-pollbook inventory) appears under the Department of Information Technology section on page 206 of the agenda packet.

Stay tuned to Conduit Street for more information.

Previous Conduit Street Coverage

Local Election Officials: Fund New Pollbooks 50/50 State/County

Conduit Street Podcast: Headline Issues — Both Policy and Process

Board of Public Works – September 15 Meeting Agenda

MACo: Election Laws Deserve Much-Needed Reboot