Electronic voting would cost HC thousands
County officials worried about paying for election mandate

Kerry Craig | News-Telegram Assistant Editor

Aug. 27, 2004 -- With the final hearing on Hopkins County's tight budget slated for next week, county commissioners and election officials are scratching their heads over how a new mandate from the Texas Secretary of State's office can be implemented to comply with the Help America Vote Act [HAVA] of 2002, as passed by the United States Congress.

A letter from Secretary of State Geoffrey Connor to County Judge Cletis Millsap outlined voting system mandates which say that after January 1, 2006, "a voting system may not be used in an election if the system uses punch card ballot or mechanical [lever] voting machines."

The letter also said that after that date, each voting place within a county "will have a voting system that will be accessible for individuals with disabilities, including non-visual accessibility for the blind and visually impaired."

Even in view of the fact that Hopkins County has taken steps to accommodate disabled voters and that the current voting system worked without a flaw during the primary and runoff elections this year, Connor, in his letter, said the county must adopt the new voting system that complies with federal requirements.

County Clerk Debbie Shirley, who serves as the county elections administrator, said the optical scan machine the county uses to tabulate votes has presented no problems.

"We have never had any problems with it," she said. "Everybody is used to coloring in the the oval, and I just hate to see that machine go to waste."

Start-up costs associated with having the mandated voting system ready at the start of 2006 will exceed $150,000 to place one new piece of equipment in each of the county's 21 voting precincts, many of which would require more than one machine.

The cost estimate does not include costs such as licensing fees for the computer software program for the new equipment of approximately $7,000 per year, or training of election judges and officials at a cost of $1,500 per day, per person.

Approximately $35,000 in funding has tentatively been earmarked for this county in federal funds appropriated for the change-over. The additional costs for the mandate will ultimately will fall to taxpayers in the county.

The change, however, must be made according to the state's top election official.

"Whether Hopkins County seeks to apply for funding or not, Hopkins County will need to adopt a voting system which complies with the new federal requirements," Connor wrote.

Three basic "purpose areas: are identified by the secretary of state's office to determine how much money counties would receive: (1) the county education fund; (2) accessible voting system in each polling place; and (3) general HAVA compliance.

Connor said the county could receive as much as $3,500 in reimbursement under the education fund, and "no advances will be disbursed."

Under the HAVA general compliance purpose, the county would be eligible to receive up to $31,357. That figure is based on a state plan which multiplies the voter age population of the county by $1.30.

With costs for implementation of the HAVA voting system being four to five times the amount to be supplied by the federal government, many smaller, less wealthy counties are hoping for a way around this "unfunded mandate."

County Judge Cletis Millsap met earlier this week with counterparts from a number of Northeast Texas counties who are opposed to the new voting system and its associated expenses. One question discussed by those judges was what might happen in counties that refuse to make the change, and that, Millsap said, could be a problem.

"Some have said, 'Well, you may be denied federal funds that come down through the states,'" Millsap said. "They [state] could just not certify an election ... this could be a problem."

Janet Perry Poppleton, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas' 4th Congressional district, said Friday morning that if county officials and taxpayers bring their concerns to the attention of legislators in Washington, D.C., Congress would have to come up with some answers.

"Typically, we don't like to pass unfunded mandates on to the states," Poppleton said. "There are several bills introduced this session, and probably next year as well, that would do a number of things such as extend the deadline, allow states to continue to apply for full funding. There are various ways they can deal with these issues so that local governments aren't feeling the pressures to come up with that money."

Poppleton said she did not think congress would come up with a short-term fix or have an answer this year.

"We still have some time here before the deadline comes to bear," she said. "We hope to get more money to the states to fund the mandate or to get some exemptions, extensions or whatever is necessary to do it."

Initially, Poppleton said congress allocated just over $4 billion to be apportioned to states to implement the program. After a reduction in the amount ordered by President George W. Bush, that amount was reduced and, to date, less than half that amount has been passed on to those states.

The secretary of state's office had hoped to have funds and application information available in June, but county officials have not received any grant information.

Although the deadline is 16 months away, Hopkins County commissioners and elections officials are exploring ways to pay for the federal voting mandate and keep the cost to the individual taxpayer at a minimum.

Millsap urged concerned voters with the congressional mandate and its associated expense to contact members of the Texas Delegation in Washington, D.C., to voice those concerns.

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