State owes municipalities more than $1M for early voting, auditor says

BOSTON (SHNS) – Cities and towns spent more than $1 million to cover the costs of holding mandatory early voting periods in 2016, Auditor Suzanne Bump has found, costs that the Legislature may be on the hook for reimbursing.

Bump determined in February that parts of the state’s early voting law imposed an unfunded mandate on municipalities. In a letter she sent Monday to the governor, legislative leaders and state budget writers, Bump pegged the total unfunded mandated early voting cost to municipalities at $1,063,978.14 and asked that the Legislature make municipalities whole in a supplemental budget.

“Early voting is an important addition to our democratic processes and funding the expenses incurred by our municipalities will make it that much stronger,” Bump wrote in the letter.

The precise tally of unfunded expenses thrust upon cities and towns was compiled through an electronic survey Bump’s office sent to all 351 municipal clerks to inquire about specific costs they incurred to comply with the early voting law, which required municipalities to offer voting in at least one location during regular business hours during a 12-day period in October 2016.

Bump’s office “found additional expenses, such as overtime for regular employees or the cost of additional election workers to support early voting, to be an unfunded mandate, thus requiring reimbursement from the Commonwealth.”

The 2016 general election was the first time Massachusetts held early voting under a law passed in 2014. Secretary of the State William Galvin’s office reported that more than 1 million voters cast their ballots during the early voting period in 2016, more than 22 percent of registered Massachusetts voters.

While debating the fiscal year 2017 closeout budget in October, the House adopted an amendment filed by Minority Leader Brad Jones to provide about $485,000 to help cover the costs racked up from early voting. The amendment was adopted unanimously on a roll call vote.

The Senate meanwhile rejected the amendment on a 9-28 roll call vote, with Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka asking senators to vote down the amendment because the Senate majority did not want the closeout budget bill to include funding for other fiscal years.

In her letter to lawmakers Monday, Bump said her offices wants “to work with you to set out the process for 2018 and the general elections in the future. We have made suggestions to the proper committees as to legislative language we recommend.”

Bump’s office said she has recommended to the Election Laws Committee legislative language that would require the auditor’s office to provide the secretary of state with a determination of mandated early voting costs by city or town in September of each year. The secretary of state’s office could then include those costs in its budget request for the upcoming fiscal year and distribute the money to cities and towns.