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Democracy on a budget: Cuts limit voter access to polls

From a continuing  series of articles, Who Can Vote?, a News21 investigation of voting rights in America. Read the full series.

By Alissa Skelton, Emily Nohr and Alia Conley

Discuss this series of stories on the Facebook page for Open Channel, the NBC News investigative blog.

Shrinking budgets are forcing state and local election officials to look for ways to save money, including ways that could have an impact on the November election.

Closing polling places is one of several cost-cutting plans that pit officials against voting-rights advocates who say the budget cuts put minority voters and rural residents at a disadvantage because of fewer urban polling places and more distant rural ones.

State and local officials also are drawing criticism from civil rights groups who oppose the photo ID laws adopted or under consideration in 37 states. Many states cannot afford the cost of providing free photo IDs or providing free documents – birth certificates and marriage licenses, for example – to obtain photo IDs.

The Douglas County, Neb., Election Commissioner Dave Phipps closed 166 of 353 polling precincts just weeks before the May 5 primary. He said it would save $115,000. Although state law allows Phipps to make that decision, the Nebraska Secretary of State, a Republican, expressed concern about it.

The state preferred closing no more than 20 percent of precincts rather than 47 percent, said Neal Erickson, Nebraska’s Deputy Secretary of State.

Who can vote? A national News21 investigation of voting rights in America.
Is voting fraud a serious problem in American elections? Will new identification requirements at the polls disenfranchise prospective voters among minorities, college students or the elderly? Should ex-felons who've served their sentences be allowed to vote? Are voting machines reliable?

To report this series of articles, two dozen top student journalists from 11 universities are investigating the impact on American voters of recent changes in election laws and voting procedures in many of the 50 states.

The series is published by NBCNews.com.

Voting rights groups say Phipps, a Republican, closed precincts used by minority voters, who tend to vote for Democrats.

“It would save money, but the details are that it disproportionately closed polling places in the two strongest Obama voter areas. What a coincidence,” said Preston Love Jr., a North Omaha community activist involved with the nonprofit North Omaha Voters Call to Action Coalition.

“The ultimate result is that some percentage of our voters did not vote, but tried to,” Love said.

Precincts close in Detroit
In Michigan, Detroit Election Director Daniel Baxter said he worries there won’t be enough money to effectively administer the presidential election in November.

“Bigger election, bigger turnout, we need more resources in place,” he said. “More poll workers to make sure voters are being processed in a timely manner. The problem comes in when you cut too much and you cannot manage the things people take for granted.”

Detroit spent $11.2 million for the 2008 presidential election to account for the dramatic increase in turnout from 15 percent for the primary to 55 percent for the general election. This year, the department requested $8.5 million, the mayor slashed it to $5 million, then approved $7.3 million. Baxter said they still need $900,000 more.

Detroit eliminated 40 precincts, and about 90 more are scheduled to close in the next four years.

“There should be protection in the democratic process,” Baxter said. “The bottom line is if you don’t pay for good elections on the front end, then you’ll pay for bad elections on the back end. If you can’t afford to pay for your poll workers to be paid for Election Day, then you’re going to have problems on Election Day.”

Out of ballots in Alaska
In Anchorage, Alaska, 53.7 percent of precincts ran out of ballots during the April mayoral election, Daniel Hensley, a former judge who was hired to investigate the ballot shortage, wrote in his report.

Of the 71,099 who turned out, at least 300 were directed to another precinct to vote. Others had to wait for more ballots, and an unknown number were discouraged from voting and went home, according to Hensley and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Early reports to a phone line that we have set up to field concerns regarding the election indicate that confusion, irregularities in distribution of ballots, use of ad hoc ballot substitutes (such as photocopies of sample ballots), redirection of voters to one precinct after another, long lines and waits, and complete denial of the right to vote occurred in many instances,” Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of ACLU of Alaska wrote to the city.

The municipal clerk’s office by law must print ballots for 70 percent of registered voters in Anchorage, but did not. Jacqueline Duke, the deputy city clerk who is responsible for elections, didn’t prepare enough ballots because she expected a low turnout, based on previous elections, Hensley concluded after investigating the incident.

In writing to the city, Mittman said, “disenfranchisement of voters for no better reason than the simple unavailability of ballots is wholly unacceptable.”

In 2010, Anchorage reduced its election budget and cut an election coordinator/deputy municipal clerk position.

The impact of budget cuts on elections is hard to measure because few counties keep track of election costs, said Ernest Hawkins, board chairman of the Election Center, a non-profit made up of government employees working to improve the election process, democracy and voting.

“Local governments are trying to cut, trim and squeeze,” Hawkins said. “Each jurisdiction is justifying their expenditures, including election costs.”

Costs of new IDs
Many states with new voter ID laws are picking up the cost of issuing photo IDs for voters who cannot afford, but will need, ID to vote. Estimated state costs for providing photo IDs and related documents range from less than $1,000 into the millions.

Through June 11, the Kansas Department of Revenue issued 44 photo IDs that cost the state $22 each. In the same time, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment issued 40 birth certificates at a cost to the state of $15 each.

Virginia lawmakers have proposed free IDs, but that measure will cost $7.91 million to $22.59 million, according to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond, Va.-based independent nonprofit that researches economic issues, with particular attention to the impact on low- and moderate-income persons.

Handing out free voter IDs in Wisconsin would cost the state an estimated $6 million the first year, and about $4 million every year after, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

In separate rulings, two judges have so far blocked implementation of Wisconsin’s voter ID law, saying it creates a “substantial impairment” to the right to vote and that violates the state constitution.

Some states might accommodate voters who cannot afford the documents or photo that newly adopted laws will require for voting. But the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, a public policy group that opposed many of the voting law changes nationally, reported that voters in many states will have to pay $8 to $25 for birth certificates and up to $20 for marriage licenses.

Running elections at 'bare minimum'
Beyond the costs to residents, advocates for fair elections said the reduced election staffs will affect voting.

An Alabama county made history last November when it filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in the country. Hundreds of Jefferson County employees lost their jobs to offset the county’s $4.23 billion debt. Nearly 50 elections jobs were slashed, causing officials to double up on responsibilities. Workers who monitored six to eight urban precincts, will have to manage 12 to 15 precincts.
The county is running elections at the “bare minimum,” said Barry Stephenson, chairman of the Jefferson County, Ala., Board of Registrars, but “the voters won’t be affected by everything that is going on behind the scenes.”

The county reassigned workers to administer its March primary election. Road repair crews got a day off from filling potholes to deliver election machines and assist poll workers. Typically, the county has 100 employees working the polls for a local primary election. In March, the county had half that number. Poll workers from other county jobs ran the election.

Reduced staff aside, Stephenson said the primary, in which 50 percent of voters turned out, went smoothly.

Vote centers have been changing the way elections are run since the early 2000s. These “super precincts” consolidate polling places and allow voting within a precinct boundary instead of restricting voters to a polling location. South Dakota is using vote centers.

“People who live on the east side of town, but work downtown could vote anywhere as long as they were traveling across the jurisdiction,” said Jason Gant, South Dakota secretary of state. The June primary was the third election for vote centers in South Dakota.

“When you go from 57 polling locations down to 10, you’re saving dozens and dozens of poll workers you don’t have to hire,” Gant said.

For the 2008 primary, McHenry County, N.D., switched to mail voting, and the only polling place was the courthouse in Towner, N.D. Auditor Darlene Carpenter said the switch hasn’t cut overall election costs because postal expenses have increased by nearly $1,500.

“Because of the rising postage costs, it’s not saving us any money, probably costing us a little more,” she said. “But the workload in the auditor’s office has decreased tenfold.”

From the 2006 election to 2010, the election cost increased $400, and almost 100 more people voted, which Carpenter said is always the overarching goal.

“I don’t think our increase in costs have been that substantial,” she said. “What we’re looking at, too, is trying to increase voter turnout. That’s the big intent.”

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News21 is a program of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that is helping to change the way journalism is taught in the U.S. and train a new generation of journalists capable of reshaping the news industry. It is headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Since 2006, nearly 500 top journalism students in the U.S. have participated in the landmark national initiative.

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