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Clerk worries about election expenses

Tuesday, October 16, 2007 | 6:51 p.m. CDT; updated 4:13 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren is worried sick. Overall, the county is facing a tight budget year in 2008, but she’s looking at a projected $1.4 million in election and voter registration expenses.

Lagging sales tax growth and other pressures have county officials bracing for a no-frills budget. But 2008 is a big election year. The presidential primary will be held in February, followed by a municipal election in April, a statewide primary in August and a general election in November. There is also the potential for a special election in June as well as thousands of petition signatures to verify.

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But the sheer number of elections isn’t the only expense. Much of the dilemma is a product of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which required the county last year to buy optical ballot scanning equipment and digital voting equipment. Federal grant money picked up most of the initial tab for those machines, but the county must rent warehouse space to store them, pay for their transportation and security, buy electronic ballot media and cover the cost of hiring and training extra election judges.

“I think it’s horrible; it makes me sick,” Noren said. “The costs of elections now are just astronomical.”

The state agrees that counties are bearing a heavier financial burden for elections because of HAVA. Betsy Byers, who is in charge of election outreach for the Missouri secretary of state’s office, explained that part of the issue stems from the amount of the initial federal grant.

“Because (the federal government) didn’t fully fund HAVA, the pinch is felt at the county level,” Byers said.

The state is responsible for distributing the original 2003-2004 HAVA grant to counties and election districts. The federal government gave Missouri only $62 million of the $74 million of the original projected cost for Missouri counties to comply with HAVA, according to the secretary of state’s office.

But the state is still hanging on to more than $12.5 million of the original grant, Secretary of State spokesman Ryan Hobart said. In 2008, he said, counties will receive some of that money to help cover the cost of training poll workers and maintaining the statewide voter registration database. Boone County will get $15,000 for training.

Some of the HAVA money eventually will be spent on voter education and outreach, and Hobart said his office is exploring other uses.

“We’re looking into helping with the costs related to storage and security of the HAVA machines,” he said.

Boone County, however, is feeling the pinch now, Noren said. She said that because the state is sitting on HAVA money, her applications for federal grants have been rejected.

“Local governments are bearing the brunt of election reform,” Noren said.

The county’s combined cost of the April, August and November elections is by far the biggest chunk of Noren’s projected 2008 budget. Those three elections alone, she said, will cost $914,000, and the primary and general elections account for $794,000 of that number. That’s a big jump from 2000 and 2004, when those two elections cost Boone County $217,294 and $490,703, respectively.

The roughly $300,000 increase from 2004 to 2008 is a direct result of HAVA, Noren said.

“It makes me physically ill to look at that number,” Noren told Boone County commissioners during a budget work session earlier this month.

February’s presidential primary isn’t included in the $914,000 figure because the state covers that cost.

Adding to the high expense in 2008 is that Missouri will likely be a focal point for both parties in the presidential election, Noren said.

“(The expense) would be lower if we weren’t the battleground county in the battleground state,” Noren said.

That means there will not only be more voters than usual but also more scrutiny. Noren wants to avoid the hassles and legal issues a flawed election would bring. So part of the 2008 budget calls for added elections security, including additional cameras that monitor ballots and equipment 24 hours a day.

“I think of ballots as dollars, and I treat them with the same security as money transactions,” Noren said.

Noren cited other complications in election and voter registration procedures that are driving up election costs. As county clerk, she has to deal with last-minute piles of voter registration cards collected by community registration drives. On election days, she has to have laptops, pagers, cell phones and other equipment so her office can communicate with hundreds of election judges at scores of polling places and help voters with last-minute change-of-address forms. Next year, she said, she’ll have 94 polling places, four more than in 2004.

Noren noted that during a presidential election, her office deals with 80,000 people in 13 hours.

“I think we did it as good or better than any place in the country in 2004,” Noren said. “(There is) no other governmental structure which has contact with that many citizens in that short of time.”


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