State needs to cover cost of early voting

Formula exists for dealing with unfunded mandate

IN 2014, lawmakers added Massachusetts to the growing list of states to offer early voting, enabling registered voters to cast their ballots as much as 12 days in advance of the official date of state and federal general elections. Since the law was passed, one out of every five voters in the state has taken advantage of the convenience it offers. In some communities, such as Eastham and Mashpee, nearly half of all ballots were cast early in 2018. As voters become more accustomed to this process and the convenience it offers, participation will almost certainly grow.

While the Early Voting Law has been lauded by voters and municipal election officials alike, it has created uncertainty and financial headaches for cities and towns because there still is not a permanent method to cover their costs. My office determined they must be reimbursed under the law against unfunded state mandates on local governments.

Early voting costs money. Additional days for in-person voting means additional hours for local elections staff. There are also increased security costs to prevent unauthorized access to the ballot boxes and voting machines. While the state did eventually reimburse communities for these costs in 2016 and 2018, this occurred long after votes were cast and counted. In the meantime, communities used limited local resources to fund early voting, costing them collectively over $1 million in both the 2016 and 2018 elections, not knowing if the state would actually pay them back.

State government should remove this uncertainty and enable local officials to effectively plan for and provide this service by establishing a permanent, predictable, and stable method to fund early voting. In doing so, we need not re-invent the wheel, since there is already a working model for funding expanded access to the polls, one that has existed since 1984.

That was the first year that all cities and towns were required to institute uniform polling hours of 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Recognizing this law would create an unfunded mandate on municipalities, the Legislature included language directing the state auditor’s office to certify the additional expenses placed upon communities to provide these extended polling hours. Since 1984, my office has certified, and communities have been compensated for, over $30 million to meet the requirements of this law, including over $3.1 million for the upcoming 2020 elections.

This is a process that has worked for voters and communities for more than three decades. Local city and town clerks throughout the state understand it and know their communities will not face additional financial burdens to provide expanded services for voters.

To address the unfunded mandate of early voting, we should mirror the success of the Uniform Polling Hours certification process. My office has worked with Rep. Steven Ultrino, a member of the Joint Committee on Election Laws, to bring forward legislation that will do just that. Under the bill, when my office determines the expenses communities face to comply with the Uniform Polling Hours Law, we would also certify their costs to comply with the Early Voting Law. After we certify these costs, the secretary of the Commonwealth will allocate funds to communities to provide both of these services before the elections take place.

 

This will reduce duplicative bureaucratic processes that waste time and money. More importantly, it will allow local governments to plan their polling locations, staffing, and other election-related expenses with confidence the state will live up to its commitments to fund these services.

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With the 2020 election looming, now is the time to address this unfunded mandate once-and-for-all. We owe it to the residents and communities of Massachusetts to make voting as easy and accessible as possible. We also owe it to local officials to provide a predictable and easy process. Addressing the unfunded mandate of early voting will go far toward reaching this goal.

Suzanne Bump is the state auditor.