$65M for Election Reform Called Inadequate

Posted February 4, 2004 at 5:47pm

Election reform leaders in Congress are calling President Bush’s $65 million 2005 budget request for election reform initiatives inadequate, and some experts predict that underfunding could spell difficulties for states trying to revamp their voting systems. “Everyone recognizes that, at a time of record budget deficits, we are competing for scarce federal dollars,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a lead sponsor of the Help America Vote Act. “However, protecting this most fundamental right — the right to vote and the right to have one’s vote counted — is so basic to public confidence in our democracy that we must not overlook it.”

Congress originally authorized a total of $3.86 billion to implement the act and create an Election Assistance Commission. To date, a total of about $3 billion has been authorized for election reform activities, including making grants to states to revamp their voting equipment.

Hoyer and others were seeking about $800 million for fiscal 2005 to fulfill that commitment, and Hoyer said he plans to push for full funding.

Of the $65 million proposed by the White House, $40 million would be allocated for grants to states, $10 million is slated for the election commission and an additional $15 million would go toward accessibility grants for programs to improve disabled voters’ accessibility to the polls.

But Doug Chapin, spokesman for Electionline.org, said he is concerned that the White House’s pledge of only $65 million could exacerbate problems outlined in a report recently issued by his group that showed a number of states have been slow to implement reforms because federal funding isn’t reaching them quickly enough.

Since HAVA’s enactment, only $650 million has actually reached the states through the General Services Administration, and most of that money went toward punch-card machine buyouts.

But as the newly created commission ramps up its activities in the midst of its own budget constraints, experts estimate that more recently appropriated money probably won’t reach states until late spring or early summer.

“Most of that money is still in the federal government’s pockets … and for all intents and purposes, none of that money will have an impact in 2004,” Chapin said.

“Lots of states weren’t able to make changes they wanted to make because of the slow pace of the money coming out. It’s not hard to extrapolate. … Underfunding in the third year might lead to similar problems down the line,” Chapin explained. “For example, states that wanted to upgrade voting technology are stopping plans to do so because the initial money supposed to be released by now wasn’t. It’s easy to foresee a similar situation” down the road.

While Hoyer is vowing to take a tough stance to try to secure full funding in 2005, he did praise Bush for proposing “adequate funds” of $410 million for the Election Assistance Commission in his 2005 budget.

Brian Walsh, spokesman for House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), said his boss was also disappointed but “recognizes this is a year for belt-tightening.” Walsh noted that “this is the fist step in a long budget appropriations process.”

Chapin praised many states for moving forward with election reform initiatives in the face of economic adversity.

“To be fair, the state and local officials really have been working hard to move forward on this,” Chapin said, pointing to states such as Pennsylvania that set up statewide voter databases before the act even came into being. “Other people are working toward HAVA mandates and just stuck waiting for the balance of the money.

“It’s not fair to say there will be no changes, but voters in many states will be surprised to find that the process is not farther along,” Chapin said.