Newby’s “Lehman Proposal”: Funding Voting Technology Via Levy on Political Contributions?

Water tap dripping dollar bills, Water waste concept

[Image courtesy of bplans]

Brian Newby’s latest ElectionDiary contains a fascinating and more than a little provocative idea: using money derived from political contributions to fund voting technology contributions. He calls it the Lehman Proposal, after a Kansas colleague who’s pitching the notion –

My peer in Sedgwick County, Tabitha Lehman, has suggested a portion of political contributions be funneled back to the state for new voting equipment…

It’s akin, I guess, to a portion of money raised by college athletics to be put back into the campus infrastructure–parking fees, reduced ticket prices for students, and campus security.

I’m not sure of the dollars–it’s worth building a case based on actual contributions from 2012 and 2014.  What if, for instance, candidates who raised more than $2,000 or $5,000 in a race had to contribute, say, five percent back to the state for the administration of an election technology fee?

There are probably ways to exempt loans and contributions from the candidate (it would seem unfair to self-fund a campaign and pay, essentially, a penalty for not taking contributions).  It’s possible that 5 percent wouldn’t even make a dent, unless, of course this became federal legislation.

In fact, I know there are several immediate reasons why this wouldn’t work.  “Dark money,” for instance–how would that be captured?

But the fact is we are about to see an outrageous amount of political spending, heading into 2016.  These candidates will expect voting systems of the same sophistication as their campaigns.

Major league players deserve major league stadiums.

One thing is clear to me–communities will get new election systems when these expire.  We’re not going to collectively raise our hands to vote and the Internet appears, for now, off limits as an idea (I mean, come on, when the IRS is hacked….)

It’s time to drive the discussion and find a funding solution before it’s funding out of crisis.

This proposal – and Brian’s interest in discussing it – doesn’t come out of left field; he has written extensively about his concerns about funding for new voting technology and I know from experience that other election officials nationwide share those concerns. Brian has a nice piece in the current post explaining why proactive approaches are necessary:

Conventional wisdom says the county will issue long-term debt as the method to find the funding for the voting system.  Problem is, long-term debt has an annual price tag.

Debt retires.  Annual price tags drop as a result.  Smart governing bodies (Shawnee Mission School District, especially) ensure that new debt follows the old and the amount being paid annually doesn’t drop off.

A drop off would be good in the short-term for taxpayers, but then the sticker shock for new debt might keep new projects from being started and soon, a school district (for instance, not the one mentioned) would need to make operational spending cuts or request a tax increase to operate the same way it had 10 years ago.

So, in Johnson County, if the amount of annual debt added exceeds the amount retiring, that money is going to have to come from the operating budget–the same one that for 2016 already exceeds the existing mill levy.

The amount of annual debt service payments required for a voting system will exceed the retiring debt service payments.  (There is some fuzzy math that might say otherwise, but if you dig deep enough, you’ll find this to be true).

Down the road, our voting equipment will be a tax increase in the making because we haven’t planned and now, ironically, it would take a costly election to approve the funding.

Unspoken but ever-present here is the belief that voters are likely to be skeptical of any tax increase – which could be a tough sled for election officials who need the funds. As Brian notes,

[M]any of us in Kansas may eventually be conducting special elections on outdated equipment to determine if taxpayers are willing for a tax increase to pay for a new voting system.

Obviously, the political contribution angle is a long shot; yet, the money has to come from somewhere – and by getting this issue on the table Lehman, Newby and their Kansas collegaues can hopefully start a conversation that leads to more constructive thinking about funding voting technology. Brian notes as much in the post:

My experience ha[s] been that the best way to push for ideas is come up with one that, worst case, can be criticized and drive debate.  If there are reasons why this won’t work, let’s discuss them and determine what will work.

Thanks to Commissioner Lehman for the idea and to Brian (a self-described “loudmouth know-it-all with a blog”) for being willing to share it with the larger election community. Figuring out election funding – especially money for technology upgrades – is a crucial issue for the field, and we can use all the ideas we can get.

Stay tuned!

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