Newby on Election Tech Replacement: “Pay (For) It Forward”


[[Image courtesy of the2womancrusade]

Over the weekend, my friend and colleague Brian Newby had a long – but important – piece on his ElectionDiary blog relating to two events that happened last week. It’s entitled “Pay (For) It Forward” and it’s reprinted in its entirety below as both a case study and cautionary tale for any jurisdiction or election official making election technology decisions over the foreseeable future.

Two unrelated events this week demonstrate the hurdles Johnson County voters and taxpayers face in looking at a new voting system.

The first was Monday, when I shared the stage with incredibly bright colleagues at a University of Chicago symposium on the future of elections.

The theme of the conference, as you can see from the photo, was implementation, or, as I quoted the “8-Ball Deluxe” pinball game I often stood by as I played Asteroids in college, it is time to “stop talking and start chalking.”

The panel discussed next-generation voting systems and my big message related to funding. More on that later (and this will be a very long post, but stick with it, please).

The second event happened Thursday at a Board of County Commissioner meeting. The Commission voted to take $250,000 out of reserves to pay for a new request by the Enterprise Center of Johnson County. The Enterprise Center is an admirable initiative facing funding challenges.

Now, this post has nothing to do, really, with any opinions of the Enterprise Center. Its mission is to help incubate new businesses in Johnson County that, theoretically, will impact the long-term viability of the area.

But I contend that this money, ostensibly taken from reserves, actually represents money that will be borrowed in the future on the back of the election office.

To make the point, let’s start with an analogy.

Suppose you buy and finance a new car.

But, you don’t really like the idea of financing the car and decide that the next time you buy a car, you’d love to be in a position to pay cash. Maybe, you think, if you could sock away extra money each year you’ll have enough to do that very thing.

It hurts, but you put away more than $2,000 each year, on top of your debt payments. You start to realize that even at this rate, you won’t be able to pay cash for your next car, but if you drive your current car long enough, you’ll have a pretty good chunk you can pay as a down payment.

A few years into this plan, your car is paid off but you’ve increased your borrowing for other things–necessary things, like a home–and you’re still putting away $2,000 each year for your future car.

Then you hit a rough couple of years. You have more expenses than you can afford. Believing that the $2,000 per year won’t be enough to pay for a new car anyway, you repurpose that savings. You pay these expenses from your savings because that’s better than charging things on your credit card and paying interest.

Times get better but your older car needs improvements and you take money out of your “new car fund” to pay for them.

You consider beginning to again pay into the car fund, but it’s been a while since you’ve spent money on anything, really, and you could benefit from upgrading other items–your wardrobe, things for your home, and other expenses that, while optional, would improve your standard of living.

Soon, your savings has whittled down, your car is old, and now you face a much higher monthly payment if you buy a new car. Worse, there is some question whether you can even get financed because you’ve borrowed so much elsewhere. At the very least, you won’t qualify for the best interest rate.

If only you had kept putting aside the money, or at the very least, began putting the money into the fund again as times improved. Instead, you face an insurmountable and possibly unaffordable monthly car payment.

So, let’s connect the Monday-Thursday dots with a list of events related to our voting system:

  1. Johnson County’s election commissioner, Connie Schmidt, with the support of county manager Gene Denton purchased touch-screen voting machines in 2001. This purchase was funded by bonds, issued by the county.
  2. At the same time, the Board of County Commissioners began to set aside $443,508 as an equipment replacement fund for the eventual time a new system is needed.
  3. In 2008 and again in 2012, more machines were purchased, against this fund, to be prepared for presidential election years. These purchases were the last needed until a new system is acquired.
  4. In 2010, as the county faces budget issues, the new county manager elects to stop funding the equipment replacement fund. One of the arguments is that this amount, set aside each year, would not be enough to meet the expense related to replacing the fleet of machines. The other argument is that the project did not have a “clear goal,” even though two previous county managers and various members of the Board over the years obviously thought it must have because the fund was established and fed without any idea of what voting systems would look like 15 years later. Still, the move was considered temporary and funding would begin again in 2012.
  5. Incongruently, perhaps, that same year, the county’s approved budget included funding of the election office’s $13 million request for new voting machines in the 2015 capital budget.
  6. In 2012’s budget cycle, that 2015 budgeted amount was changed by the county manager to $5 million. Also, the 2012 budget did not represent the voting equipment replacement fund reinstating as earlier planned.
  7. All capital money for voting machines is removed in the budgets presented for 2013, for 2014, and, I expect, 2015.
  8. One argument, now, is simply that $13 million is a lot of money, and we have been asked if there are ways that amount could be split over a period of time. Operationally, that would be terrible, but financially, one way to have split the cost, of course, would have been to use the equipment replacement fund as a “down payment,” making the total more reachable.

Now, realize that the county manager faces tremendous pressure to present a budget that doesn’t result in a mill levy increase, and also understand that the budget includes potential future financed projects, and that financing impacts reserves and, eventually, the mill levy as well.

But, unless something changes, voting machines will not be purchased in Johnson County without a tax increase. (And, scanners, if paper ballots were used, coincidentally represent a cost of about $5 million to the county because we don’t have scanners today. Beyond that, Johnson County voters elected to use voting machines over paper in the late 1960s and it’s likely that paper ballots would go against the proverbial will of the people).

In any event, here we are:

On Monday, I’m professing issues with funding.

On Thursday, money is pulled from reserves to pay for a new need. It’s fair to question if this money would have been available if the elections equipment replacement fund had continued.

One thing I said Monday is that I’m convinced we will get funding for a new voting system. It’s inconceivable to think otherwise.

But how will that be paid for? By a tax increase? Is the voting system the trigger for such a thing, or, really, is it other spending? Are there other voting machine-like issues in the county, representing large future expenditures that aren’t anywhere in the budget book?

Kansas statute 19-3534a allows for the Board of County Commissioners to have a separate tax levy for elections. I’ve long advocated this to our county manager–not as a tax increase, but as a called-out separate line item so that people see exactly how much elections are costing. I think this is the ultimate in government transparency.

This line item is utilized in two of the three other counties in Kansas with election commissioners. Further, I think there is value in creatively considering a scenario where the county purchases equipment, capital improvements, and supplies and leases these items to the election office. We then could bill the county on a per-voter basis but, more importantly, do the same with jurisdictions that have special elections.

For the county, this initially would be a wash. For the jurisdictions, costs would go up to fully capture the cost to provide elections on their behalf. In turn, this would shift some costs from the total Johnson County taxpayer to the taxpayer of the jurisdiction that created the cost.

(I get that, for instance, a Shawnee taxpayer also is a Johnson County taxpayer, but such a scenario could reduce costs to the Johnson County taxpayers as a whole and only be represented by those in the jurisdictions that create special elections. It’s a “cost-causer is the cost-payer” model.)

But, to the point of the voting machine costs–as it is, the $400,000-plus ongoing run rate from 2001 that stopped in 2010 has been repurposed to fund other county activities. I wouldn’t disagree that these activities are important–just like the Enterprise Center funding–but when they are funded and, later, the county must borrow money or take tax action to pay for voting systems, this has to be considered.

It’s not necessarily the voting machines that are causing the impact. At the very least, a couple of million dollars that eventually gets financed or is part of the tax increase is a bit of an innocent bystander. $13 million might have be $10 million if the fund continued.

(That said, I’d argue strongly that there isn’t a more important tax dollar spent than on elections because that’s kind of where government starts).

Like the car analogy:

If only we had kept putting aside the money, or at the very least, began putting the money into the fund again as times improved. Instead, we face an insurmountable and possibly unaffordable voting systems payment.

Thanks to Brian for sharing this issue in such detail – and here’s hoping his experience is useful to his counterparts across the nation in deciding how to approach (and fund) the coming wave of voting technology upgrades.

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