Top Issues of 2022 Session: Elections — Funding Fairness and County Role

With the 2022 legislative session just around the corner, MACo is profiling some significant 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.

Counties administer and fund elections at the local level, overseeing polling places and coordinating poll workers every two years — an essential function that proved challenging amidst the pandemic.

Current law fails to recognize modern trends in voter preference, capabilities of new technologies, and realities of administering elections in our local communities. Even once health concerns abate, Maryland’s odd, antiquated mix of laws and practices in governing elections deserves a much-needed reboot.

What’s the Problem?

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 the State Board of Elections often makes arbitrary decisions that shift administrative and cost burdens onto local Boards of Elections, whose operations rely on 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 for county governments.

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.

What Happened Last Session?

MACo supported legislation to update election laws with an emphasis on fairness, transparency, and accountability.

A 2021 MACo Legislative Initiative would have required the State Board of Elections (SBE) to take necessary and appropriate steps to provide transparency and accountability for transactions that oblige county funds, and to afford ample opportunity for input from local governments and Maryland voters. The bill also sought to clarify and cofify the 20-year precedent that governs state and local election funding, in order to provide stability and predictability for State and local budgets.

State Board of Elections – Membership, Contract Management, Ballot Drop Boxes, and Voting System Financing did not advance in the 2021 legislative session.

Major Progress Over the Interim

The State Board of Elections (SBE) plans to replace its electronic pollbooks — which verify and 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 therefore planned to invoice county governments for 100 percent of the costs to acquire the necessary equipment and software — close to $30 million over the next three years.

As previously reported on Conduit Street, MACo sent a letter to the Board of Public Works asking the State to honor its longstanding split of funding responsibility for elections.

At a September meeting of the Board of Public Works, Secretary of Budget and Management David Brinkley pledged that a project to replace state-mandated electronic pollbooks and ancillary equipment would follow the same 50/50 state/county funding split as other comparable equipment since 2001.

The assertion came at the behest of Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot and former State Treasurer Nancy Kopp, both of whom raised concerns over a State Board of Elections plan to invoice county governments for 100 percent of the costs to purchase the necessary equipment and software.

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.

2022 MACo Legislative Initiative: Ensure Funding Fairness and County Role in Elections

For 2022, a MACo Legislative Initiative aims to deliver necessary and timely policy changes that balance the shared goals of providing fair, open, and transparent elections.

MACo advocates to codify the 20-year precedent that voting machines and related systems be a split funding responsibility between the State and counties, and ensure proper local input for large contract/procurement decisions that oblige county funds.

Stay tuned to Conduit Street for more information.

Previous Conduit Street Coverage

BPW Breakthrough: Panel Seeks, Receives Cost Split to Help Counties

MACo: Fund New Pollbooks 50/50 State/County

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