By Katy Owens Hubler and Wendy Underhill
A big part of NCSL’s Future of Elections: Technology, Policy and Funding Conference in Williamsburg, Va., June 14-16, was (no surprise) devoted to how to fund new equipment.
The 150 legislators, election administrators and others in attendance learned that states fall into three categories: Those where local jurisdictions pay for virtually everything election-related, those where the state pay for it all and those in the middle, with a mix of funding strategies.
Here are stories from a few states that chip in for new election technology:
Nebraska’s Election Technology Committee spent the better part of a year studying the issue of aging voting equipment. The chair of the committee, Senator John Murante, said that the committee agreed that the cost of elections should be shared between the state and counties. The committee report recommended that the state pay for new voting equipment, with the counties paying for ongoing maintenance. A bill, LB316, was introduced in 2017 to establish The Election Technology Fund, but it failed. “Nebraska’s economy is dependent on the price of corn, and it went down,” said Murante. “We’re hoping everyone purchases corn now.”
North Dakota was in a similar place this year as Nebraska, but the culprit was oil, not corn. The legislature saw the need for new equipment, but couldn’t fit it in the budget this year. Because North Dakota uses biennial budgeting, they’ll have to wait until 2019. Deputy secretary of state Jim Silrum has found a silver lining in the delay: additional enhancements and options may be available by the time they’re ready to purchase.
Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea was able to get new equipment last year. It wasn’t a hard sell. They’d been using equipment bought in 1997. Election administration in the Ocean State is highly centralized (unlike Nebraska and most states), so, with the help of a community task force, she was able to issue an RFP, choose a system, get an appropriation from the legislature, buy the system and put it into use all in less than 12 months. The system cost a total of $9.2 million, based on a lease-to-own option with an eight-year term.
Nevada’s Legislature appropriated $8 million this year for replacement of elections equipment throughout the state. Las Vegas has already bought new equipment, and will be reimbursed from the state fund.
A year ago Utah created a task force to look at new elections technology options. Since starting, the group met several times, decided on requirements and let an RFP. The legislature established a grant fund (HB 16) to pay for statewide replacement. Initially the bill called for $2.5 million, but, in the face of budget concerns, that figure was reduced to $275,000 in the end. That’s not enough, of course, to replace equipment statewide, so local jurisdictions will be required to fund their own purchases, but at the state-negotiated price. Counties will buy when they can, so The Beehive State won’t necessarily have a fully unified system in the future. But then, most states don’t.
In Maryland, the process to replace equipment began in 2010 with a thorough staff review of voting equipment options and prices. New equipment was deployed in 2014, with the state and counties sharing the cost 50/50. The state leased the system for $28 million and the contract included equipment and maintenance, as well as training. Stanford Ward from Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services mentioned that the state chose to lease because that option provided flexibility to adopt newer technologies as they become available.
Minnesota’s legislature has been wrestling with how to replace equipment for a couple of years, along with just about all other states. This year it created a $7 million grant fund to replace aging election equipment by 2018. The fund will provide up to a 50 percent match from the state to counties (and up to a 75 percent match for e-poll books). The appropriation was included the state government omnibus finance bill.
For more information on funding for elections, check out these NCSL resources:
Katy Owens Hubler is a former member of NCSL’s elections team and currently consults for NCSL.
Wendy Underhill is the director of elections and redistricting at NCSL.