Election Issues Continue to Challenge States
Even though the nation has more than 200 years experience in conducting elections, changes mandated by federal and state laws, combined with technological changes and major shifts within society, mean that states need immediate policy and budget responses. The cost to states and local governments for election administration is likely to be high for the next three years, but some of that can be mitigated with legislative action to grant reprieve from outdated laws and practices.
About the Author
Doug Lewis, a certified elections/registration administrator (CERA), is executive director of The Election Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization representing the nation’s election officials. He has been called on by Congress, federal agencies, state legislatures, and national and worldwide news media for solutions to voting issues.
The aftermath of the 2000 presidential election helped ensure election administration and voter registration issues would be at the forefront of policymakers’ minds for the next decade. The federal government has spent about $4 billion on the elections process since 2000.
States had to spend from their budgets to comply with new federal mandates, as well as added mandates of their own for election reform issues during the past 10 years. This has made elections more expensive for both the states and their local election jurisdictions.
States face policy decisions about how to best handle a potential tidal wave of additional costs related to elections during the next three or four fiscal years—but some policy initiatives can streamline the elections process. Understanding the nature of some of the initiatives and the reasons for election costs can assist policymakers in shaping election budget initiatives.
Take Laws Off the Books, Delete Some Mandates
States responded to the 2000 presidential election with new initiatives and a renewed emphasis on the basics of voter registration and election administration. Significant savings can be made within state and local election budgets if state legislatures will review the election code and revamp legal mandates and administrative requirements to fit current conditions.
Society has changed considerably since most state election codes were developed, and state governments have not adjusted the mandates to reflect new technologies and social habits. For instance, many states still require advertising election notices in newspapers when the public no longer relies on printed news as its principal source of information. Many of the requirements for sample ballots, voter information and voter publications could be better served, and at a lower cost, by allowing publishing on websites and/or electronic distribution rather than printed or mailed. For a complete list of recommended changes, policymakers can engage the local election administrators within each state or contact the Election Center in Houston.
Voting Equipment Needs to Be Replaced
Congress in 2002 passed the Help America Vote Act, which provided assistance to states to comply with federal elections laws and set minimum standards for the administration of federal elections. The act also forced almost all states to buy new voting equipment within a narrow band of time. States that had used lever voting machines—some in use continuously for more than 60 years—were “encouraged” by the federal government to get rid of the units. States and local governments that were using punch-card voting machines, which had been used for 25 years or more in some locations, also discontinued the use of those devices.
The most expensive election problem facing the states and local governments now is almost all of that equipment will need to be replaced soon. It will begin as early as 2013 for some and will affect almost all before the 2016 election. History has taught us that making major changes to voting equipment should occur well before a presidential election year so voters and election administrators have experience with the equipment before the year in which the largest number of voters will participate. Some factors affecting this area are included here since they are not readily apparent to budget and political authorities.
Maintenance Costs Are Higher
Both lever machines and punch-card machines were relatively low cost devices to maintain and to store. The types of voting machines that comply with the Help America Vote Act requirements means states have been changing to either optical scan or direct recording equipment. Direct recording machines are sometimes called “touchscreen units,” but the terms are not synonymous, since touchscreen units are a type of DRE, but not all DREs are touchscreens. The costs of purchasing, maintaining, storing and programming these types of machines, and/or software maintenance, mean that the cost of elections for states making the switch from older technologies to newer technologies has been dramatically increased from previous budgets.
Neither lever machines nor punch-card machines required any special storage facilities, so the normal governmental storage facilities could be used for those kinds of voting units. The newer versions of voting equipment all require specialized storage facilities for environmental, maintenance and security reasons. This has greatly increased the cost of elections for local jurisdictions since the cost of such storage facilities is considerably more expensive than the old days of placing units in county barns or unairconditioned facilities. Additionally, pest control is necessary since the newer devices are adversely affected by rodents and insects, so facilities have to have better barriers to pests.
Maintenance costs are also higher since not only do the newer voting devices need environmentally controlled facilities, but they also need continuous electrical connection to maintain their internal batteries. State and local governments have had to upgrade the expectations of the types of employees who can handle and work with the equipment. Employees with competent technical skills are more expensive—and not always as available in sufficient numbers—than the previous generations of employees who staffed elections. Training costs also are higher for both the full-time employees, non-technical staff and poll workers who handle the precinct-based elections.
Software Upgrades and Software Maintenance Are Added Costs
Software upgrades and software maintenance agreements have added tremendously to the cost of elections for state and local governments. In periods of financial difficulties or recession, governments have deferred software and hardware maintenance and software and hardware upgrades. The cost-cutting sounds like a prudent measure until policymakers and budget authorities discover the errors that such decisions can cause in the ensuing elections. This is because the known problems updates would have corrected were not fixed due to a lack of funding.
Security-related Costs Are Higher
One additional factor has driven the cost of elections significantly. The cost to secure the voting equipment so that only known and approved individuals have access to it has been a new phenomenon for most of the jurisdictions in America. It was not that the machines were unsecured before, but there were fewer ways to alter the voting equipment in the past.
Voting equipment now must be secured in a much more elaborate process than in previous budget histories for state and local governments. Video monitoring systems, electronic and controlled access systems, witnessed access to software, equipment, control devices and ballots—even the delivery of equipment to polling sites—have become more complicated and expensive.
Mandated Changes in the Business Model
Because the changes required by the Help America Vote Act are relatively new, there have been no new budget patterns for state and local governments to follow. Even the industry itself had no experience with the kind of consequences resulting from the legislative changes forced upon the election process. Old pricing models weren’t working and voting equipment manufacturers began to reduce the number of employees serving states and local governments. Industry consolidation has been a concern for policymakers and election administrators as well.
A combination of a weak economy paired with massive legislative changes has meant some of the voting systems companies simply ceased to operate or merged with other larger companies. The full impact of that is still not known, but clearly there are fewer choices for governments and prices are considerably higher—and will be for the immediate future.
Obsolescence Accelerates Need to Replace Voting Equipment
One of the unfortunate realities of modern voting equipment is that not even the manufacturers can force electronics suppliers to have the same parts available seven, 10 or 12 years later. Finding parts to repair the voting units can be difficult, if not impossible. Contracts can be written to have manufacturers provide these parts and supplies into the distant future, but that drives up the costs of the units at purchase time and for maintenance contracts. For actual cost of ownership issues, it is likely to be less expensive to purchase new voting equipment every eight to 12 years than to try to maintain older equipment past its prime.
Some states are exploring options with vendors willing to design voting software that can run on Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) hardware, but even this software will be designed to accommodate COTS equipment available at the time of the purchase. While equipment may become effectively obsolete, the software may also be out of date within a period of years, but it is more likely that software can be updated to accommodate then current COTS equipment. The unknown in this example is whether the cost of software will increase to equal the expense of new hardware.
Technical Skills Are the Wave of the Future
It is clear that all of government is moving to a more technology-based workplace, but election workers will need to be especially skilled. States that cannot make adjustments in requirements for greater technological skills and training, which can be costly, may need to look at the model developed in Georgia, where the state contracted with Kennesaw State University to handle all the programming and maintenance of its electronic voting devices. This model is likely to be adopted by other states as programming for vote tabulation and vote reporting software becomes more difficult, and mission critical, and as hardware becomes more expensive to repair.
Additionally, the shorter life cycles of much of the voting equipment is likely to mean that it will be necessary to have permanent staff within each state (such as the Georgia & KSU model) who know how and why the technology has to be designed according to certain practices, with appropriate security safeguards, and how best to achieve accurate elections. Only the largest jurisdictions within states will likely be able to accomplish this on their own.
States are faced with unchartered territory in much of the post-Help America Vote Act era. Legal policy is a factor, but so is the changing nature of society itself. This combination of changes means that governors and legislatures will be faced with finding new solutions, even though the nation has had elections for more than 200 years. And for the foreseeable future, those new answers appear to be dramatically more expensive, which means that streamlining the process within each state becomes more important than ever. The budget wave will begin as early as 2013 for many states.