Empty Wallet: Once Again, Illinois State Fund for Local Elections Runs Dry

[Image via the918dotorg]

Few states have a more contentious budgeting process than Illinois – and this year, it appears the state has once again left localities in the lurch as one source of funding runs dry. The Daily Herald has more:

Local election authorities will lose more than $4.4 million in grant funds this year that pay for, among other things, purging ineligible names from voter registration rolls…

Amy Kelly, the assistant to the executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections, notified county clerks of the bad news at the beginning of July. Six election bodies applied for at least $100,000 from what’s known as the IVRS Lump Sum Grant. In addition to voter registration integrity, the grant helps fund voter registration equipment and corresponding software licensing fees.

The grant typically functions as a reimbursement for money already spent for such efforts. The money for 2017 became one of the many funding casualties in the state budget debate.

The Cook County clerk’s office applied for $1.43 million, but spokesman Nick Shields said officials have learned not to count on the money. The office builds any of the grant cash that does come through into the office’s operating budget.

“We would have had the opportunity to hire additional staff, invest in additional training and modernize some of our Election Day infrastructure,” Shields said of plans for the funds. “One of the projects in the hopper was developing, potentially internally, an all-encompassing Election Day dashboard to help us increase responsiveness at polling sites if a complication arises.”

The project will sit on the back burner for a while longer because of the vanishing funds. 

The disappearing money has forced some counties to essentially give up on the grant even though they need the funds:

Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham’s office was eligible for nearly $101,000 in reimbursement from the grant for 2017. He and other officials are pinching pennies to help solve a $2.8 million midyear budget shortfall.

Kane County Board members have already reduced that deficit to less than $700,000, but officials, like Cunningham, are being asked to find either more cuts or more revenue.

Cunningham described the lost funding as an “omission error” on the part of the state. He’ll continue to lobby for the funds, but the county does not have a strong history of receiving support from the grant. Financial records show the state hasn’t funded any of the costs Kane County is eligible to receive reimbursement through the grant since 2012. As a result, the county stopped budgeting for the funds in 2014.

Joe Onzick, Kane County’s chief financial officer, said he and other officials trying to close the budget gap would love it if the money came through.

“To the extent that we lost potential additional revenue is, of course, never good news,” Onzick said. “It is that much less that we might have received to offset the revenue shortfalls in other areas.”

Compounding the challenge, the state board itself is partially dependent on the funds, which can shrink the size of the pot for counties:

[The State Board of Elections’] Kelly said the state’s new budget includes $3.9 million for the grant. But that total may shrink if the state board of elections needs any of the money for its own operational needs.

This story is the latest reminder of the difficulties localities face in obtaining reliable fiscal support from states to run elections. While I recognize that every state (not just Illinois) has to make tough decisions about how to allocate public funds, this year-to-year uncertainty for many local offices seems to be less exception than rule. [Don’t even get me started on special elections.] At a time when election integrity and security are in the headlines – remember, Illinois was one of two states whose voter rolls were reportedly breached in 2016 – it seems strange to me that the state can’t find even a little money on a regular basis to ensure that local election offices have what they need. Here’s hoping Illinois and other states can find a way to give local offices a predictable funding source – at least more predictable than “there isn’t any.”

Stay tuned …

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