What's in Your Wallet?

locked_wallet.jpgWith all the whining and complaining we heard from the conservatives in Raleigh this Summer about not having enough money to fully fund the State Board of Elections, I bet you might be surprised to hear that there is more than $4 million sitting in state bank account earmarked for elections-related spending. Sound great, right? But just like everything in Raleigh these days, while it should be good news, it probably isn’t.

Here’s the history. Congress passed Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002 to prevent another Florida Fiasco. The law establishes minimum standards for voter registration and election administration. There are different pots of HAVA money , but the largest (Title II) is for computerized, statewide voter registration/record systems, purchasing and maintaining compliant voting machines, and improving central office and poll-site election administration.

The feds knew that if they just gave this money to the states, they would simply use the federal money to fund their state boards of elections. To ensure that Title II funds are not just used to replace existing state funding, HAVA requires states to maintain their core election budgets at no less than their year 2000 level. HAVA funds can only be used if the state appropriates its Maintenance of Effort (MOE) level of funding. Pretty tricky, eh?

In 2008, the State Board of Elections used more than $1 million in federal funds to expand Early Voting opportunities across North Carolina. The money came from Title II funds that NC received under HAVA to improve election systems. The Elections Board used the money (along with over $2 million provided by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly in 2008) for grants to county election boards to add scores of Early Voting (EV) sites, train poll workers, and buy new equipment to efficiently run Same-Day Registration at EV sites.

The core budget (MOE) of the State Board of Elections is $3.46 million per year. But the General Assembly purposely went below that level by funding only $2.79 million for each year of the 2011-2013 biennium – or about $660,000 less than the MOE requires. The legislature also adopted a provision in the state budget (Section 26.1) saying the Board of Elections can not use HAVA Title II funds until the MOE funds “are appropriated.”

Bottom line, there is still over $4 million of HAVA Title II money in a NC bank account. But Republican leaders in the General Assembly have frozen the HAVA account and won’t let the State Board of Elections use it, while many rural counties are having a hard time finding the money to print ballots!

Playing politics with funding priorities is one thing, but the willful withholding of federally appropriated dollars is quite another.