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Our Election System Needs a Tuneup

By Damon Circosta

RALEIGH - There are plenty of things we would rather spend money on than car maintenance. Regular oil changes, tire rotations and the like don’t bring us any joy. Nevertheless at least four times a year we make our way to the quickie lube to ensure our car is in good working order.

We do it, not because it is fun, but to avert disaster. A little attention beforehand keeps us from breaking down and helps prevent costly repairs in the long run.

For policymakers, funding the administration of elections is a lot like paying for oil changes. There are plenty of other public projects clamoring for funds. Teachers, roads and schools come to mind.

Making sure there are enough voting machines, trained poll workers and voting locations doesn’t make constituents jump up and down with excitement. But if we don’t fund our election system, just like if we don’t change our car’s oil, we are headed for a breakdown.

Sadly our democracy does not have a “check engine” light. There is no flashing signal that says we are on the brink of failure. Our neglect only becomes obvious after a malfunction has occurred.

We all remember the huge problems with hanging chads in Florida in 2000 or the countless stories of local governments having to redo an election after some embarrassing mix up. But what we don’t remember are the years of skimpy budgets that left the elections apparatus weakened and susceptible to failure.

The tires of our election system are bald, the oil is dirty and we need to do something soon lest the whole operation fall apart. Right now, the folks at the N.C. General Assembly have an opportunity to do some preventive maintenance. The best part: they can do it for pennies on the dollar.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to assist states with improving election infrastructure and administration. In order to demonstrate that HAVA money is being used to improve election systems and not simply to replace existing state election budgets, there is a requirement that states maintain a certain spending level.

In 2011 the state legislature passed a budget that did not supply enough funds in order to draw down federal HAVA money. Luckily it’s not too late to fix this.

If the state can come up with roughly $660,000 -- a dime per registered voter -- the over $4 million in federal funds will be unlocked to fix up our election system. These funds are sitting in a bank account in North Carolina and are desperately needed to adequately administer this year’s elections.

It’s a no-brainer. Still the General Assembly is yet to act. While they wait, there are real consequences if we do not fund our elections. Our state is about to embark upon an electoral journey the likes of which we have never seen.

The 2012 election will be bigger, louder and more hectic than ever before. National presidential campaigns will be whipping up votes. Due to the redistricting process, many voters will be headed to a new polling location. And our election administrators will need to process more ballots than they ever have.

Some say the failure to fund elections is a partisan ploy to limit voting by people who would vote against the majority. Others say that this is a budget issue and our elected officials are worried about government spending.

Regardless of motivation, the system is showing some wear. If we don’t do something very soon, we voters will be stuck on the side of the road.

Damon Circosta is the executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education.