Update on June 16. Monday night, June 15, my friend, Times-News reporter and former newspaper colleague Isaac Groves posted this on Twitter from the budget hearing of the Alamance County Board of Commissioners.
I’m glad to see the commissioners make a move to help make the November elections process smoother. Thanks. It was something that needed to be done. Here is a link to the story just posted by the Times-News about the public hearing. The vote was 4-1 with an obviously conflicted Amy Galey, the board chair, voting against. She cited previously controversial budget votes during her term, including one about funding for the Alamance-Burlington School System. The ABSS budget faces steep cuts this year as well as programs for youth sports in county recreation. The Times-News story includes video of the meeting.
Noah Read, secretary to the Board of Elections, cited the county’s vote in support of the elections office and its director Kathy Holland in a letter he submitted on Tuesday. The text follows:
When the Commissioners voted 4 to 1 last night to put necessary elections money in the Board of Election actual budget, and not hold it in their “designated fund balance,” it showed that they understand the importance of safe, secure, and accessible elections to county voters.
The County Manager’s recommendation that the County should keep a quarter of a million dollars or 30% of the County’s election budget in a contingency fund just does not make sense. The Board of Elections budget should not serve as a funding cushion for the County, even during a revenue crisis.
The Board of Elections has many time-sensitive state mandates. To fulfill these mandates we have to make many financial commitments. We have to secure voting sites and make commitments for technology and security support. We must print ballots and other election materials, and we have to hire and train all of the part-time elections staff that are essential to conducting an election. The Board of Elections can not meet these mandates if our funding is uncertain.
And I think the Commissioner vote for a funding commitment also shows the confidence they have in Director Kathy Holland and her staff. In her twenty years as our County’s Elections Director, she has worked tirelessly to run our county elections efficiently. She has always managed to stretch money, staff, and resources to work within the County’s budget while effectively conducting local elections.
Alamance County Board of Election
In the election of 2016, 69 percent of Alamance County’s more than 100,000 registered voters cast ballots. In all, 54 percent voted early via the one-stop method at three or more polling places strategically placed in the county. I cast my ballot that year at the Holly Hill Mall location in a space that used to be a Victoria’s Secret store. Only in America.
Although 69 percent might not sound like whopping turnout, it is. Presidential election years are like that. People make sure they vote for president. And in North Carolina there are a lot of major political races on the presidential cycle: Governor, lieutenant governor, council of state, a U.S. Senate seat, all U.S. House seats, N.C. Senate and N.C. House, state and local judges as well as county commissioners, board of education and several other elected offices.
So the Nov. 3, 2020 election is a big deal.
Given the number of voters and associated demands on time and infrastructure, an election of this magnitude would be a challenge under perfect conditions. Something almost always goes wrong from machine failure to human error. Add in the COVID-19 pandemic and, well, there is a whole new set of problems to deal with. We’ve seen this play out in smaller elections recently in other states. Georgia, for example, where the election was very much botched.
So I was concerned this week when Steve Buckley, the former publisher of the Times-News, the guy who hired me to work there and a friend posted on social media that the county is looking at steep budget cuts this coming fiscal year because of the pandemic and its damage to the Alamance County economy. This includes the county Board of Elections. In all, $725,000 in cuts are recommended by County Manager Bryan Hagood. Steve wrote that this could mean:
1. Likely loss of all but the Graham Early Voting site.
2. Weekend voting hours cut by half.
3 Non-permanent employee salary cuts cause major problems processing voters at the polls and at the BOE office.
4. Cuts to funds for voting equipment maintenance and storage and to computer leases.
5. Security for voting equipment storage sites and cybersecurity both compromised.
6. Printing for paper ballots and other elections needs drastically underfunded.
7. Advertisement/voter education cut dramatically.
8. NO funding at all for COVID prep at election sites or the coming surge in processing expenses for absentee ballots is even included.
I immediately sent an email to the Board of Elections office expressing my dismay and supporting the bi-partisan elections board in its efforts to convince the county to rethink its position. Another former newspaper colleague, Debbie Piland, contacted commissioner chair Amy Galey to also express her backing of funding to ensure the 2020 election operates normally. Galey, who is running for N.C. Senate this election, responded by sharing reassuring emails she had received that day from Hagood.
Good afternoon – thank you for your email. I have received two emails from the county manager today on this topic:
Good morning, Commissioners! I hope you all had a nice weekend.
I wanted to be sure the Board knew that while I have recommended reducing General Fund dollars for the Board of Elections in FY 20-21, I expect the County will have access to outside funds from other sources to support Elections. These include:
$ 601,580 FY20-21 Mgr Recommended Budget from County General Fund
$ 207,297 Designated Funds – Saved FY18-19 unspent budget for future needs
$ 41,493 Designated Funds – HB589 (county portion)
$ 113,250 Elections grant funds (non-county)
$ 100,000 CRF Grant Funds – Coronavirus Relief Funds (NCPRO)
$ 58,008 CESF Grant Funds – Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding Grant (DOJ)
$ 186,507 CARES ACT Funding for Elections and HAVA (HB 1169 and VIPER HB 1063)
Some of these funds are in our hands at this time, and others are actively being applied for by County staff.
Please let me know if you have any questions. Thank you!
Ala Co Manager
Good afternoon, Commissioners! One final clarification for the proposed BOE budget:
The BOE request for FY 20-21 was for a total of $1,316,937 and included the following significant increases:
$ 75,301 Salary & benefits
$153,172 Supplies & Printing
$105,804 Medicap Bldg Rent for Additional 2 Units B&C
I have identified a total of $1,308,135 available for BOE funding in FY 20-21 between new County funds, designated County funds and various grant sources. That covers 99.33% of the BOE request for the year. I am sure we can work to find the best way to use these funds to have a fair, efficient election just as we always do.
Ala Co Manager
With a forecast of 20% reduction in the county’s sales tax revenue, many difficult decisions must be made. There are deep cuts in many county departments, including canceling youth sports in Rec & Parks, cutting library purchases, and not only is ABSS not getting the 1.6M they requested in continuation funding it is being cut by about $460,000. This a difficult budget year for all local governments.
Thank you for your concern and your advocacy.
Amy Scott Galey
Chair, Alamance County Board of Commissioners
That all sounded OK but I decided to ask about it. The Alamance County Board of Elections, an appointed board that also includes Elections Supervisor Kathy Holland, met Tuesday afternoon. I gather from their response the board isn’t that confident in Hagood’s figures, particularly in the money the county hopes to receive but isn’t guaranteed. I contacted the BOE secretary and board member Noah Read on Thursday. He had just completed drafting a resolution for the board to present to the commissioners staking their position for a better, more efficient election in November. The documents below lay out what is lost by different percentages of possible budget cuts.
Read said the overall proposed cut is 35 percent for a department that counts its nickels pretty closely. The cuts are 54 percent without the withheld designated funds and will be 35 percent with the designated funds — money the Board of Elections will have to ask for individually at commissioners meetings as it inevitably runs out of money.
Holland isn’t a big spender and the commissioners know it. Read estimates that with that 35 percent cut alone they lose all but one Early Voting site and half their weekend hours. In addition Read said “We shouldn’t be counting the POSSIBLE $75,000.00 in COVID Funds to fund printing ballots. That money must be spent to protect elderly poll workers and voters. Especially if everyone is standing in long lines because we have a shortage of workers, computers and voting sites.”
In is his message Buckley emphasized that this isn’t about party but what’s the right thing to do. We say elections and voting matter. A cut like this in a presidential election year is clearly the wrong thing to do. Buckley said he believes it’s an attempt to suppress voting. I certainly hope not, but it smells really bad.
The county commissioners will take up the budget on Monday. Make your voice heard for a sufficiently funded and uncomplicated election. Our leaders should make voting easier, not more difficult. That is especially true now — especially now.