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By Susan Gobreski
Pennsylvanians’ fundamental right to democracy hinges on the ability of the state’s 67 counties to efficiently and effectively run our elections. With all the recent changes to the method and manner of voting in Pennsylvania, the General Assembly should increase election funding.
To modernize and maintain the necessary equipment, personnel, and space to deliver free, fair, and open elections, counties deserve a guarantee of reliable state funding. Here’s how lawmakers can do that.
Currently, counties carry the entire cost of elections outside of sporadic funding from the federal and state governments. In 2019, the Commonwealth provided one-time funding of $90 million for counties to implement mandated voting equipment upgrades. Act 77 passed in 2019, bringing with it sweeping changes to election administration and the ability of all voters to vote by mail, yet no additional funding was included to support these needed, but costly, changes. There is no regular funding from the federal government, either.
Election costs are rising, further straining smaller county budgets and limited county resources, much of which is derived from property taxes.
We propose adding $9,159,000 for each primary and general election, to the state budget to be distributed to counties for operating polling locations, for an annual total of $18,318,000. This works out to be $1,000 for each of the 9,159 precinct/voting divisions.
The three categories of election costs are people, equipment, and space. The counties’ need to allocate money within these three areas varies greatly, based on each county’s circumstances, including how many people are needed to administer elections, when they last bought or upgraded equipment, and the amount of space they need to conduct elections and store equipment year-round.
What every county has in common, every election, is the cost of election day—the costs for poll workers and site costs, such as paying host space stipends and transporting equipment.
Specifically, we propose adding $9,159,000 for each primary and general election, to the state budget to be distributed to counties for operating polling locations, for an annual total of $18,318,000. This works out to be $1,000 for each of the 9,159 precinct/voting divisions.
This is a fair formula for distributing money, giving support to every county at a rate based on the number of voting divisions that they operate. County officials and election offices can then determine how best to support their election administration, whether that is simply meeting increased demands or making investments in newer equipment.
We can afford it. $18.3 million is not a huge budget item in our state’s $34 billion annual budget. It works out to be $2.10 per registered voter and only $1.40 per Pennsylvanian. We are all personally and collectively impacted by the quality of our elections, and every person who lives in PA has a stake in their integrity and success.
The Department of State also needs to increase its budget for the capacity needed to support election administration and systems, and the central support needed to ensure a high-quality process.
Every legislator should be able to support these investments in our elections at both the state and local level. We need to support the local costs that are associated with elections, which provides relief to county budgets and local taxpayers. Doing so empowers local officials to make decisions about their priorities by freeing up local dollars.
For a legislator to be able to truthfully say they care about the security and integrity of our democracy, they must support the funding of our elections.
Susan Gobreski serves as a senior advisor at Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. She has also previously contributed to the Pennsylvania Capital Star in her capacity as a volunteer member of the Board of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.
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