Massachusetts Auditor Says Some Early Voting Costs an Unfunded Mandate on Localities

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In 2016, Massachusetts joined the list of states offering early voting, with over a million voters taking advantage of the opportunity. Now, the state is considering a bill to reimburse some local early voting costs after the state auditor found that those costs constitute an unfunded mandate. The Gloucester Times has more:

The state’s first foray into early voting was lauded as a success, but it was a costly one for cash-strapped local governments.

Cities and towns spent nearly $720,000 on early-voting costs that should have been picked up by the state, according to a recent report by state Auditor Suzanne Bump. [A link to the report is here.]

The expense included extra election workers and longer hours at polling stations during the early voting period, from Oct. 24 to Nov. 4, preceding the Nov. 8 election.

The switch did generate lots of activity at early voting sites in 2016, creating additional costs for localities:

More than 1 million residents — 22 percent of registered voters — cast early ballots, according to Secretary of State William Galvin’s office.

Galvin’s office provided grant money to cities and towns to promote early voting, but that didn’t affect mandated costs such as hiring poll workers and keeping polls open. The Legislature chipped in $400,000 to help communities cover early voting costs.

But local elections clerks say that money didn’t fully cover their expenses.

Andover Town Clerk Lawrence Murphy said poll workers and booths, police details, advertising and other expenses cost an extra $14,000.

“We knew it was coming, so we built it into our budget,” he said.

Bump’s report said at least $5,562 of Andover’s early voting costs were unfunded.

Murphy said 8,600 town voters cast early ballots last fall, or about half of those who voted.

Overall, about 80 percent of Andover’s registered voters participated.

“It didn’t increase voter turnout, but the public really loved it,” he said. “And it certainly cut down the lines and congestion on Election Day.”

In response, the Governor and the Legislature are moving to have the state pick up more of the costs of early voting:

Gov. Charlie Baker and lawmakers are pledging to take over those costs. A Republican-led proposal that is building bipartisan support on Beacon Hill will require the state to pick up the tab beginning in 2018.

“It’s an unfunded mandate, so the state need to pay those costs,” said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, the bill’s primary sponsor.

“We want to make it easier for people to vote, and early voting will likely be a part of our landscape going forward,” he said. “But local governments shouldn’t be bearing the brunt of those expenses.”

Baker, a Republican who ran on a platform to reduce unfunded mandates on the state’s 351 cities and towns, said recently he will “find a way” to cover early voting costs before the 2018 midterm elections.

That help will be welcome, but won’t cover all of the additional costs: Bump’s report also found that localities spent about $1.2 million on costs that don’t represent an unfunded mandate, including optional extra weekend and evening locations as well as costs associated with central vote tabulation.

The fiscal relationship between states and localities across the country, especially as it relates to election administration, is coming into sharper focus as local clerks seek ways to fund everything from new equipment to new registration opportunities to new voting locations and hours. Massachusetts’ effort to help defray these costs will be an important development – if the state can find the money to make it work.

This issue will directly affect Massachusetts but could also have an impact across the nation. Stay tuned …

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