“Cash-strapped election offices have fewer resources after bans on private grants”

Matt Vasilogambros for Stateline:

“This month, Wisconsin joined 27 other states that have banned or restricted local governments’ use of private donations to run cash-strapped election offices, buy voting equipment or hire poll workers for Election Day.

“All of the state laws came in the past four years, pushed by conservative lawmakers and activists who claim that Democratic voters disproportionately benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in grants primarily funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, during the 2020 presidential election.

“Courts and federal regulators have rejected those claims, but the debate over the role of outside money reveals a broader worry among election experts, who say there are significant shortcomings in local government funding of election offices. That includes not just Election Day duties and vote counting, but also the year-round administrative work of maintaining voter rolls and taking care of and updating voting equipment. …

“Money from Congress has been limited. This year, congressional leaders agreed to provide $55 million in election grant funding for states to distribute locally. That is around as much as Los Angeles County alone spent conducting a gubernatorial recall election in 2021. …

State money for elections varies widely. Lawmakers in some states do not allocate any of their budget to local election officials.  …

“Other states do allocate some local election funding in their budgets, but often not at a level that would allow for major equipment replacement, said Matthew Weil, executive director of the Democracy Program at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a D.C.-based think tank.”

I concur with this sentiment expressed by Matt: “I don’t necessarily disagree with banning private funding in elections. But that does require that counties, states and the federal government step up and fund elections at the levels they need to provide the services that voters have come to expect.”

If funding falls below a level where it becomes impossible for the government to conduct the election, would that constitute a constitutional violation? A theory of this sort was pursued in Ohio after its debacle of a performance in 2004, and it survived a motion to dismiss. (As I recall, the case was settled after Jennifer Brunner became Ohio’s Secretary of State, and so the claim never went to trial on the merits.) As anyone who has studied or been involved in school funding litigation, suing the government for failure to provide adequate funds for an essential public service is extremely challenging–but not altogether impossible. It would seem a violate of the federal Constitution, as interpreted in Bush v. Gore, for a state to hold a popular vote for the appointment of its presidential electors, but then fail to provide adequate funding for all the state’s eligible voters to participate in the popular vote in a meaningful way. As a practical matter, it would be difficult to proof that funding was so inadequate as to essentially deprive some voters, but not others, of an opportunity to cast a ballot–and thus cause those voters to end up being disenfranchised. But at some point, the lines at polling places may be so long because of inadequate resources to constitute functional disenfranchisement. It’s a line-drawing problem.

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