Raleigh, N.C. — When the $20.2 billion state budget was unveiled this week, voting rights advocates got an unpleasant surprise.
Although the House and Senate had included $664,000 for the State Board of Elections in their initial spending plans, it mysteriously disappeared from a compromise budget that both chambers approved on Thursday.
"When (the budget) went to the conference committee, we kind of thought it was a no-brainer this was going to be in there since both sides had done it," said Brent Laurenz, executive director of the nonpartisan North Carolina Center for Voter Education.
The money would have triggered the release of $4.1 million in federal election funds under the Help America Vote Act to help counties pay to maintain voting machines, train poll workers and open more early-voting sites to cut down lines on Election Day.
"When the budget emerged from behind closed doors, we didn't have that deal. So, we're surprised and disappointed," said Bob Phillips, executive director of nonpartisan voting rights group Common Cause.
Republican leaders weren't available Friday to discuss the budget, but some have said previously that counties don't really need the extra funds.
Laurenz said larger counties like Wake can probably absorb the loss, but smaller counties like Granville or Warren and those with tight budgets will have trouble. Many counties already budgeted the money, expecting to have it, he said.
"Now, the counties will be responsible for whatever shortfalls there are (and) have to make it up or cut early-voting sites, things like that," he said.
Phillips noted that $664,000 is less than 0.01 percent of the total budget.
"We thought, maybe, that would be easy money to find, and certainly, when you have like a seven-to-one match, all the better. It's a great deal," he said.
Laurenz said 2012 isn't a good year to make voting more difficult. The changes in legislative and congressional voting districts caused confusion in the May primary, and turnout for the presidential election this November could set records.
"Out of a budget of $20 billion and change, we think $660,000 is worth it to have an election process that runs smoothly and fairly for everybody," he said.