NC lawmakers further gut election spending as November looms

Five months away from Election Day with marquee races for president, governor and dozens of other offices, North Carolina legislators have again voted to slash the battleground state's election budget -- a move that will cause N.C. to forfeit $4 million in federal funds and which election watchdogs fear could make voting more chaotic this fall.

The budget just passed by Republican lawmakers includes $102,000 in cuts to the N.C. State Board of Elections, which oversees the state's voting systems.

That's on top of a $660,000 slashing of the Board's budget in 2011 for a critical state agency whose core operating budget for running elections had been just under $3.5 million a year.

That means that the state election board will have less money to train poll workers, maintain voting machines and other measures to keep elections running smoothly.

It also triggers a more damaging blow to election funding: By failing to maintain a level of core election spending outlined by the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, it will also cause North Carolina to forfeit $4 million in federal funds to improve voting systems in the state.

HAVA, passed in 2002, requires states to maintain a so-called "Maintenance of Effort" target level of spending which can be no less than the amount spent in 2000. That was the year of the Florida election fiasco, and the HAVA incentives aim to keep states from letting their voting systems deteriorate and repeating such a calamity. The HAVA funds can be used for such things as poll training, improving machines and expanding voting sites to avoid long lines.

But in 2011, the North Carolina Republican leadership slashed the state's election budget to fall below the HAVA-mandated 2000 levels. Adding to the mischief, the General Assembly also passed a specific provision in the state budget (Section 26.1) saying the state can't access HAVA funds until the State Board of Elections gets the 2000-level funding -- which they voted to deny.

In the latest budget passed this week, lawmakers again commanded that "the State Board of Elections shall not expend any Help America Vote Funds (HAVA) Title II Funds for the 2012-2013 fiscal year ... until Maintenance of Effort funds are appropriated," which they didn't appropriate -- ensuring the HAVA money won't be released.

In a February 2012 letter and an April resolution, the bipartisan Election Boards Association of North Carolina called on the General Assembly to put $660,000 back into the budget to access the $4 million in HAVA funds. As recently as May, both House and Senate budgets included the $660,000 -- but that mysteriously vanished in the latest version passed this week.

The deep cuts come as North Carolina election officials brace for growing election costs in 2012. According to Bob Hall of the election watchdog group Democracy North Carolina, a second primary in July 2012 will cost counties about $5 million. Counties will also have to pony up $3 million for licensing of machines.

"The warning signs are here: The lack of proper poll worker training and equipment failure led to a large number of voters getting the wrong ballots in the May primary," Hall said in a statement released today. "Why are legislative leaders so determined to throw a monkey wrench into North Carolina’s election system in the busiest, most intense election cycle in our history?"