On March 23, President Donald Trump signed a federal budget law that included $380 million in Help America Vote Act grants for states. The grants ranged from $34.5 million for California down to $3 million for several of the smallest population states, including Montana.
Want to know how the states are using those grants? Just go online to the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission website and you will find the details in letters from election officials in every state — except for Montana, as of last week.
Back in July, the Wyoming secretary of state notified the EAC that the Cowboy State will use $2.8 million in federal funds and $150,000 in state funds to purchase new voting equipment for Wyoming counties. That decision was made through a task force of county clerks, county commissioners, lawmakers and secretary of state staff that was created a year ago.
Also in July, the North Dakota secretary of state wrote that the entire $3 million, plus a state match of $150,000 will be used to “procure a paper-based, HAVA-compliant voting system” for the state’s 53 counties. The system is expected to be ready for the 2020 presidential election cycle.
Not even lawmakers on the committee with oversight of the Montana Secretary of State Office had seen Montana’s plan when they met on Nov. 13. Committee Chairwoman Sue Malek, D-Missoula, repeatedly asked for the information from Dana Corson, the SOS elections chief.
Apparently, there was some miscommunication. Corson told the legislative panel that no money could be spent until further approval from the EAC. But a spokesperson for the federal commission later told the Associated Press that the money has been available for Montana’s use since April.
In a letter to the EAC dated Sept. 19 and released publicly last week, Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton wrote that $2 million of the federal grant, plus a state match of $150,000, will be used to replace the statewide voter data base and to pay the salary of the SOS elections supervisor, Stuart Fuller. Stapleton wrote that $150,000 would be used “to enhance IT security.”
Stapleton’s letter says that $750,000 will be available to counties for merit-based grants with the counties matching the federal money dollar for dollar.
That won’t be enough to cover the hardware that county elections officials say they need. They have pleaded for grant money to replace outdated machines that assist disabled voters. Each polling place is required to have one of these devices, which cost at least $3,500 apiece — about $1.2 million to replace them at all of the state’s 343 polling locations. Some large and not-so-large counties are needing new vote tabulating machines, a need intensified by recent increases in voter turnout. Missoula County election judges reportedly counted ballots for 40 hours straight starting on Nov. 6 at 8 a.m. One of the tabulators broke down during the marathon count.
In Yellowstone County, there were no significant malfunctions, but the continuous counting of more than 66,000 two-page ballots wasn’t completed until about noon on Nov. 7. Additional tabulators would speed up the process, but each machine costs more than $100,000.
Database vs. hardware
It isn’t clear to us whether an updated statewide data base or updated voting equipment for counties is the best use of this limited federal grant. But county elections officials and state lawmakers should be part of the decision making. This isn’t SOS money, it is a limited grant to the state of Montana. This money won’t make all the improvements that would be desirable to our elections system. Broader public input is needed to set priorities.
The present voter data base was built between 2004 and 2014 at a cost of about $10 million, according to the Associated Press. Even if every penny of the federal grant was spent on that project, it wouldn’t be enough. So where would the rest of the money come from? What’s the time line for completion?
That type of information is needed to evaluate whether greater upfront investment in county election hardware would be more prudent. Secretary of State Stapleton should be making these decisions with help from the Montanans who have the most expertise on conducting elections — the elections clerks and administrators in our 56 counties.