Like many other swing-states, Virginia’s elections in November were marred by long lines and short-staffed polling places. But if Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R) proposed state budget cuts come to pass, election officials fear future elections in the Old Dominion will be even worse. In correspondence obtained by ThinkProgress under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, state and local election officials talked of a “mass exodus” of key staff and questioned whether the state’s already cash-strapped election infrastructure can even survive another round of budget cuts.
Days after the election, McDonnell’s chief of staff directed agency heads to come up with plans to cut four percent from their budgets. A month later, he proposed more than $92 million in state budget cuts and reallocations.
After State Board of Elections Secretary Donald Palmer forwarded news accounts about this memo to city and county electoral boards, panicked local board members responded with their alarm.
Renee Bergmann Andrews, secretary of the City of Falls Church’s electoral board, wrote:
[So] we just had an election with 3-4 hour wait times because we didn’t have enough money (or authority) to add equipment, staff, etc., and now he wants us to cut more. Are we having fun yet?
Bill Dell, secretary of the City of Williamsburg’s electoral board, wrote:
I hope you will be able to ensure Governor McDonnell fully understands the impact of any further cuts in funding for Registrars and EB members across the Commonwealth. The community was barely able to survive the last round of cuts particularly in view of the fact that contrary to other Commonwealth employees our General Registrars have been cut out of any raises since 2007. It is unreasonable to assume we will be able to maintain the necessary employee quality simply out of loyalty to the community. There is no question in my mind we will be facing a mass exodus of our best people should we take further cuts to a compensation package that is already severely lacking. Our people are tired, frustrated and overworked. Don, there is no more blood in this turnip! The sanctity and overall success of our election process in the Commonwealth (which I’m sure you will agree is probably the finest in the nation) is dependent on keeping our best and brightest. Unfortunately the way things seem to be going the situation will only get worse in future elections. I hope we can avoid doing something really foolish.
Palmer, a McDonnell appointee, noted that “further reductions and the lack of investment in our general registrars (part and full time) is the biggest threat to elections in the Commonwealth,” and wrote:
There are severe pressures on the budget. Money really is the solution for fewer lines – ingenuity only goes so far. We can build it but without the resources on the state and local level, it will be difficult, too impossible. Wait till they see the bill for just keeping the status quo in replacing voting equipment statewide and [electronic poll books].
Palmer told ThinkProgress that Virginia “needs to dedicate additional resources to new voting systems to more fully meet the high demand of presidential elections, and maintain the professionalism of our local and state election officials. There are many different ways to vote to include absentee, in-person or by mail, and in person on election day. The best way to improve the administration of elections and to reduce lines is to invest in more efficient, accurate, and faster voting systems, and then to recruit and train poll workers to use the new technology. Without an investment into the fundamentals of election administration, you are working around the margins of the issue.”
While Congressional Republicans push for even more draconian cuts than are already on the books with the slightly-delayed sequestration, the consequences of under-funding vital government programs will be stark. Thousands of voters were effectively disenfranchised by the long lines at the polls in 2012 — but these cuts will likely make those problems far worse in future elections.