Our View: Election equipment a coming expense
After the embarrassment and exasperation of the 2000 presidential election — recall the dragged-out recounting in Florida, the infamous “hanging chads” and “pregnant chads,” the never-ending debates over voter intent, and more — Congress came up with the Help America Vote Act to make sure it never happened again.
Among other reforms, the act led to $3.3 billion in spending to replace outmoded voting equipment.
But that federal funding source has since dried up. And a lot of the new voting equipment it bought isn’t so new anymore. In fact, in Minnesota and in 42 other states, according to one analysis, it’s reaching the end of what was expected to be 10- to 15-year lifespans.
In Minnesota, $28 million is needed right now — or very soon — to update equipment and assure future elections, as Secretary of State Steve Simon has been saying to anyone who’ll listen. Recently that included members of the News Tribune editorial board.
“Are we in a crisis? No. But if we wait until the 2018 election or, certainly, the 2020 election, (we could be),” Simon said. “It’s the old saying: You’ve got to dig your well before you’re thirsty. We want to get out ahead of this.”
The quickly coming need for big bucks for voting equipment is an almost-exclusively a rural-Minnesota problem, according to Simon. That’s because metro-area counties — including Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, and Anoka counties — all recently took it upon themselves to find funding and update equipment. They’re good to go.
So is Duluth, according to St. Louis County Auditor Don Dicklich and St. Louis County Supervisor of Elections Phil Chapman. Our county’s largest city, which holds elections every year, also recently upgraded its voting equipment.
“We’re not at a crisis, but I’d be supportive of (the state) replacing equipment here, too, if they’re going to do it on a statewide basis,” Dicklich told the Opinion page. “But it should be funded from the state’s general fund dollars and not by property taxpayers. … This is the basis of our democracy, so I don’t believe the property tax levy is the proper vehicle for funding this.”
Helping the situation at rural St. Louis County polling places is a commitment to regular equipment repairs, Chapman said.
“We’re required every other year to have maintenance done, to test it all, and to make sure it’s working and gets fixed,” he said. “Ongoing maintenance keeps these machines in good shape.”
It’s a different story elsewhere in Minnesota, however, according to Simon, and the scary-big dollar figure being bandied about for equipment replacement was determined by the Minnesota Management and Budget office, he said. As difficult as it’ll be to get money out of the Legislature this year, the state is being asked to play a role in raising the funds. But we local taxpayers are sure to be nicked, too, our secretary of state warned, his view of who should pay in contrast to that of Auditor Dicklich.
“We’re not asking for the Legislature to come up with the whole $28 million, but we are asking for a generous match,” Simon said. “It’s ‘we’ll go part way if you’ll go part way.’ It seems to make sense. And it’s one-time funding.”
The state and its 87 counties and 3,000 or so polling places really don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to possessing reliable election equipment. We have to hold elections. So we have to have reliable election equipment.
“I don’t want to cry wolf here or use the ‘c’ word, crisis. … I’m not telling you everything is blowing up. But we do have to start thinking about this,” said Simon, who has been joined by the League of Minnesota Cities, the Association of Minnesota Counties and others in raising awareness. “It concerns me that we don’t have a plan in place. I think if we wait until 2018 or 2020 to do something, you’re going to see more problems and breakdowns. … Getting out ahead of this is the right thing to do.”
Getting out ahead of this before Minnesota becomes the next “Florida in 2000,” simply put, would be responsible.