Town Election Costs Going Up
Municipalities are the next local governments to feel the pinch of higher election technology costs.
Elections are scheduled in all 11 municipalities this year, and the towns face costs estimated at almost twice the cost of previous elections.
The higher costs reflect everything from truck rental fees to programming costs.
County Elections Director Glenda Clendenin gently broke the news to municipal leaders at a luncheon meeting at the county election office in Carthage. The session was held several weeks in advance of the budget preparation season for local governments.
Feeling the sting most acutely will be the smaller towns, where an increase of a few thousand dollars can make a significant difference in the budget.
"For the smaller jurisdictions it will be almost twice as much this year," Clendenin said.
The town of Vass, for example, faces a total cost of $1,576.70. Programming costs alone are projected at $386 for the town of Pinebluff.
What boosts costs this year are additional expenses attached to the programming and operation of new equipment first put to use last year with primary and general elections. The new equipment was acquired to comply with legislation enacted in 2005 requiring all jurisdictions to use voting machines with paper ballot back-up.
Lawmakers decided on the change because of glitches in election vote counting dating back to the controversial presidential election in 2000, when a series of problems turned up in Florida and other states.
The problem came closer home in 2004, when thousands of ballots in Carteret County were lost in the counting process. The total could not be reconstructed, because the count was in the computerized equipment and no back-up was available.
By 2005, the General Assembly was fired up to make sure such an error did not occur again. By requiring paper ballot backup, the new law makes it possible for election officials to count paper ballots by hand in the event that any votes are "lost" because of electronic failure or human error in handling computerized equipment.
These are not the only issues raising the cost of elections.
The Help Americans to Vote Act, the newest federal law, includes requirements adding to the cost, along with costs from the older Americans with Disabilities Act. And, of course, gas prices are higher.
Clendenin told the municipal officials that each jurisdiction will be charged $90 for truck rental costs delivering equipment to polling places. Mileage is charged at 39 cents a mile.
Some of these costs are pro-rated because of obvious differences in costs depending on circumstances.
"It's not fair to charge the same amount to cross the street in Carthage that we charge to take equipment from Carthage to Pinebluff on the other side of the county," Clendenin said.
Carthage voters cast their ballots at the Agriculture Center across the street from the elections office in Carthage, whereas all other polling places are located at varying distances across the county.
Board of Elections members are required to visit all precincts on election day to make sure appropriate practices are being carried out, that equipment is working smoothly and to provide any other needed help. Then the board has to meet on canvass day, when election results are certified and thus become official.
An additional cost is the meeting to count absentee ballots. One municipality, Cameron, is spared that expense because Cameron does not allow absentee voting in municipal elections.
The Board of Elections also racks up a number of other expenses. The cost of ballots is 25 cents apiece for each registered voter in the precinct. In the case of Vass, the charge is projected at $113.25, or 25 cents for each of the 453 registered voters.
Clendenin acknowledged that it is extremely unlikely that all registered voters in any jurisdiction will go to the polls on election day, but the law requires provision of a ballot for every one of the potential voters, though turnout is rarely more than 50 percent and is often considerably lower.
Other costs include pay for precinct officials, advertising, rental of the polling place and postage for mailing absentee ballots.
Clendenin reported that the state now requires the Board of Elections to have a signed agreement with each municipality.
Otherwise, voting in the Nov. 6 municipal elections should go smoothly. The new equipment worked satisfactorily in both the primary and the general elections last year, although election officials had little preparation time. Among preparation needs were purchase and receipt of new equipment, programming of new equipment, training of election officials and education of the public. All of these things were carried out in conformity with existing election scheduling requirements.
The county paid $316,099 for 33 tabulators for paper ballots and 28 direct record machines with audio ballot capability plus new voting booths for all precincts.
Voters now mark their choices on paper ballots, much as they did 50 years ago before implementation of electronic ballot counting equipment. Those ballots are then fed into tabulators, which provide an automatic electronic count. The ballots are retained and thus are available for recounting if the electronic equipment breaks down.
Because the law enacted in 2005 affected the 2006 elections at a time before county budgets had been adopted, the state allocated funds to assist counties with the cost of the equipment and also with programming. Federal funds were also available.
The filing period for municipal elections opens at noon Friday, July 6, and ends at noon Friday, July 20.
Florence Gilkeson can be reached at 947-4962 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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