Springfield, MA Cites Funding Issues in Cancelling 2019 Voter Mailings

[Image via flickr]

Springfield, MA’s election office says there’s no money this year for a new voter notification postcard effort enacted by the City Council – but opposed by the mayor. MassLive has more:

Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola-Lopez said Tuesday her office does not have enough money in its budget to mail reminders to registered voters ahead of the 2019 city elections, under an initiative sought by the City Council to increase voter turnout.

Mayor Domenic J. Sarno said he agrees, and is offering no supplemental funding — apparently blocking the election notification program this year.

Sarno vetoed the council-approved notification ordinance in June, but the council overrode the veto Monday in a 10-0 vote.

The ordinance called for postcards to be mailed to the households of all Springfield voters ahead of the 2019 preliminary and general elections, informing the voters of the dates, their poll locations, and the races on the ballot. The program was intended to boost lethargic voter turnout in municipal elections, councilors said.

The postcards and postage were estimated to cost $13,000 for each election, on Sept. 10 and Nov. 5.

The Commissioner alerted the City Council to funding issues at the time of the override:

“The implementation of this ordinance is not fully funded,” Oyola-Lopez said, in a prepared statement, one day after the veto override. “Additionally, carrying out this ordinance with short notice before the September elections will likely mean that the mailing provisions cannot be implemented this year.”

Sarno criticized the program as an unjustified spending of tax dollars.

Councilor Jesse Lederman, the lead sponsor of the Election Notification ordinance, said he encourages the mayor to find funding within the current city budget, from the contingency account or another source. In the past, the city has funded initiatives during the year that are not in the budget, he said.

Any funds added to the Election Department budget would need to be appropriated by the mayor and approved by the council, under the City Charter.

Councilmembers seem to think the city can and should find the funds in the recently-approved budget, given low turnout in off-year city elections:

The new $691.7 million city budget took effect July 1. Approved by the mayor and council, it includes nearly $50 million in the stabilization reserve “rainy day” fun.

Councilors said the cost of the notification program is not expensive. Voter turnout in the last city preliminary election in 2017 was 5.39 percent, and the turnout in the November election that year was 9.9 percent.

Lederman said many people do not know the election dates or where to vote.

Under the notification program, the Election Office would send out the postcard reminders no later than 20 days before each local election. The first notice would need to be mailed in August ahead of the Sept. 10 preliminary, Oyola-Lopez said.

For her part, the Commissioner is planning to work on implementing the post cards for future elections, including coordinating with other voter outreach efforts:

Oyola-Lopez said she is planning to meet with the city’s chief administrative and financial officer, Timothy J. Plante, to prepare an analysis of costs for the program in future years.

In addition to the postcards, the ordinance calls for the Election Office to place signs on the day of the election at the closest intersection to each polling location. The signs would include the message of “VOTE TODAY,” the ordinance states.

Lederman said he believes the cost of lawn signs at 40 locations would be “a few hundred dollars.”

Oyola-Lopez said that in discussing the issue with Sarno, he “would like to prepare a comprehensive plan to effectively increase voter turnout” and has directed her to work with Plante on that plan.

“However, as the Mayor had said in his veto message, there are measures that we can take within the current budget akin to what is proposed in Section B of the ordinance,” Oyola-Lopez said. “We have built partnerships citywide in an effort to increase voter outreach.”

There are partnerships with groups including the School Department, Springfield Libraries, FOCUS Springfield and many other community and faith based organizations, Oyola-Lopez said.

“We are committed to expanding those outreach efforts,” she said.

While it is a bit surprising that there isn’t any funding available for what seems to be a small expenditure on postcards and signs, it’s not surprising at all that the mayor would use his ability to control the budget to push back on a program he doesn’t believe is worth the money. Here’s hoping city leaders can get on the same page on keeping Springfield voters informed going forward. Stay tuned…

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