Fewer early voting sites for Watauga?
by Anna Oakes
Elections Director Jane Hodges said the number of early voting sites could be reduced to one or two, compared with four in 2008, and that the local elections board would be forced to seek additional funding from the Watauga County Board of Commissioners if the General Assembly does not act.
“If we do not have this grant money, we will be limited to the hours at ASU and probably only will have (the Board of Elections office), which is really a disservice to the voters of Watauga County,” Hodges said.
The 2011 state appropriations bill, House Bill 200, prohibited the State Board of Elections from spending Federal Help America Vote Act Title II funds until the full amount of Maintenance of Effort funds are appropriated. This essentially froze the account containing HAVA Title II funds, which can be used for poll worker training and technical support, licenses, maintenance and testing of voting equipment, and support for additional early voting sites.
Congress passed HAVA in 2002 as a result of the 2000 election fiasco in Florida. The law provides federal funds to states to improve election equipment and administration for federal elections.
The most recent HAVA appropriation was in 2009, said Gary Bartlett, executive director of the State Board of Elections. State appropriations for elections must be at least equal to the 2009 state appropriation (referred to as “Maintenance of Effort”) before HAVA funds can be spent.
Elections Technician Neil Baddour said the General Assembly appropriated $2,793,649.06 in funds that qualify as MOE this fiscal year, leaving a balance of $663,936 to be appropriated before HAVA Title II funds can be spent.
“This General Assembly thought it would be best not to fund it because of budget concerns,” Bartlett said.
County boards of elections recently sent a letter to N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger calling on the General Assembly to appropriate the additional $663,936 needed to release the HAVA funds. Watauga County Board of Elections Chair Stella Anderson was among those signing the letter.
“We expect a large voter turnout, especially in the fall, and many counties will be holding elections with new district lines, split precincts and other changes that complicate voter education and administration,” the letter stated. “In addition, many counties face very tight budgets and need assistance to provide adequate early voting facilities to relieve the pressure of long lines on Election Day.”
Baddour said $4,057,871 is the current balance of HAVA Title II Section 251, which are funds to be used for federal election administration improvements. An additional $602,083 is the balance of HAVA Title II Section 261, which are funds used to increase access for voters with disabilities.
Bartlett said the State Board of Elections planned to spend the remainder of North Carolina's HAVA funds in 2012 and that it doesn't appear Congress will make additional HAVA appropriations any time soon due to the economy.
“I think that you'll see that a lot of county commissions and county boards of elections would like to have this money mainly because it will help them. It certainly will help keep voter lines down to a minimum, and certainly it is something to help the voter and to help the county finances,” he said. “Without that assistance in funding, it will be on the county commission to fund the elections.”
During the 2008 general election, Watauga County had four early voting sites: the Board of Elections office at the courthouse, the Agricultural Conference Center in Boone, the Boone Town Council Chambers and Plemmons Student Union at Appalachian State University.
N.C. Rep. Jonathan Jordan (R- 93), who represents Ashe and Watauga counties, said he knew legislative leaders were aware of the issue and working with the State Board of Elections to ensure the May primary election goes smoothly. Jordan said the issue could come up during a mid-February legislative brief session and that he would inquire about it then.
“I would certainly be in favor of getting as much funds as we need to run elections,” Jordan said, while adding he wants to be sure elections funds are spent properly