Cuts to election funding worry experts

North Carolina is expected to be a battleground state in the 2012 presidential election. But as the national spotlight gets hotter and ballots get more complicated, lawmakers have cut already-scarce election funding.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The country's attention will be on North Carolina during next year's election as Republicans will compete in a hotly contested primary and Democrats try to keep the Southern toehold they gained in 2008.

But the nuts and bolts of those elections – printing ballots, keeping machines in working order, making sure every voter who wants to cast a ballot gets a chance – depend on state agencies where budgets have shrunk dramatically.

The North Carolina General Assembly's decision to cut more than $1 million from the State Board of Elections' $6 million dollar budget this year could make it harder to ensure county election operations have the machinery and personnel they need to make the 2012 election run smoothly.

Damon Circosta, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, called the cuts "a recipe for chaos."

"The election apparatus in this state has never been fully funded. And we're now cutting into the bone," Circosta said. "If you lose 20% of your funding, which 20% of voters do you not want to show up?"

The cuts eliminated 14 positions, including eight elections technicians who helped elections officials in all 100 counties statewide. Since 2005, they've been helping counties design their ballots, test and troubleshoot voting machines, and find areas for improvement before they become problems.

"They were sort of a fail-safe in the election process," state elections director Gary Bartlett said. "They were rapid responders ... if there was a problem with an election, they were the first there."

With the technicians gone, Bartlett said more county problems will have to be handled by phone from Raleigh, rather than in person. More affluent counties may hire more technical staff of their own. But poorer counties may not be able to pick up the slack.

"What we have got to do is learn how to do more with less," Bartlett said. "It's possible it will take us longer to get to the bottom of the facts."

House Speaker Thom Tillis said he is confident the State Board of Elections will continue to function efficiently.

"Unfortunately, tough decisions had to be made this year, and agencies throughout state government are having to tighten their belts, like North Carolina families have done for more than two years," Tillis said in a statement.

Budget-writers also declined to provide $3.4 million in required funding this year to unlock $4 million in federal Help America Vote Act funds. They're meant to help counties open more one-stop voting site and purchase voting machines and license to operate the machines.

In 2008, when HAVA money was available, there were 370 one-stop sites across the state.

"We will not come near that number this time. So, you will be seeing longer lines at one-stop sites (and) longer lines on Election day, and we just hope that voters have patience and understanding," Bartlett said.

Turnout is expected to be high in 2012, with both the presidential and gubernatorial races on the ballot. It's also expected to be more complex, with new voting maps that split up hundreds of state and congressional voting precincts. If those maps win federal approval, precinct officials may have to stock a half-dozen ballots or more, rather than one or two. 

Circosta said all those new ballots will cost more to print, and more workers, not fewer, will be needed to make sure each voter gets the right one. 

Unless lawmakers find more money, Circosta said, North Carolina could end up with a messy election like the one in Florida in 2000 that held the presidential results in the balance for weeks.

"The problem with the elections apparatus is (that) nobody cares until it's too late," he said. "It's like a shuttle launch, and we've got one chance to get this right. And the only griping will come, if something goes wrong, after the election."


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