Civic engagement comes with a cost, according to McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael.
“Unfortunately, the costs are going to start soaring for elections,” Michael said as she outlined some details of her proposed fiscal year 2020 budget that requests $1.4 million for election-related expenses. That's a $400,000 increase from what was spent in the 2016 presidential election.
According to a Tufts University National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, 50.7% of registered student voters at Illinois State University cast their ballots at the local polls in 2016. Michael has met with President Larry Dietz and other campus leaders, including students about ways to improve the election experience on campus in the next cycle. Students think voter participation will be at an all-time high in 2020, possibly hitting 90%.
Michael, who has been overseeing elections since 2010, predicts a turnout of between 75% and 80% for the primary and general presidential elections. Because of that, and input from the ISU ad hoc election committee, the clerk has put money in the budget for an additional three campus polling places that require additional equipment and as many as 140 election judges. The proposed election request also includes early voting sites for some rural McLean County communities, an option not offered in previous elections.
So far, the only campus polling location secured is the ISU Bone Student Center Brown Ballroom, which was not available for recent elections due to a major renovation. Michael said the ballroom will be part of the 2020 cycle, and that will be a huge help.
In the most recent election, some students were shuttled to the Government Center in downtown Bloomington to avoid long lines at an alternative campus polling location that could not handle as many students as the ballroom.
Watterson Towers residence hall is another possible polling place, but that is not confirmed so far.
The bulk of Michael’s request—$300,000—is for new iPads to replace aging laptops with outdated software. The iPads are used by election judges to check in registered voters and to process new registrations from those taking advantage of Illinois’ same-day voter registration law.
Michael said the iPads will speed up check-in because election judges won’t have to click on multiple screens that come up on laptops.
“With the iPads, open it up, type in this, boom! You’re ready to go,” she said.
Michael said experienced election judges and the county’s IT leaders have given the iPads a thumbs-up for ease of use with election software that was recently upgraded with grant money. Michael said Assistant County Administrator Eric Schmitt suggested the full election funding request might not make it past the McLean County Board Finance committee and that Michael should look for ways to reduce the request.
“I am not a believer in raising taxes. I believe in cuts, so if we can make them we will," said Michael. "But we have a job to do and we have to run an effective election.”
So far it appears Republican lawmakers in Washington are blocking legislation that would increase election security in light of Russian threats against U.S. voting infrastruction in 2016. That's when the Illinois Board of Elections database was hacked and information about 76,000 voters was compromised.
Evidence of the serious nature of the threat was outlined last week in testimony before the House from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who indicated Russian attempts to influence elections continues and it's detailed in-depth in the Senate Intelligence Committee report on “Russian Efforts Against Election Infrastructure.”
Michael is hoping lawmakers will recognize states and counties need for support to boost election security and respond to increased voter engagement.
“We’ve got enough taxes to deal with, especially here in Illinois, so we’re just hoping and praying for some additional funds to help offset these ongoing increases in election costs.”
Without additional support from the federal government, Michael said it's unclear how many ISU poling places the county can afford to run. She said regardless of those decisions, it will be important to wage a campaign to get students to vote early and register before Election Day. Michael points out it takes 20 minutes to register one new voter. She said same day registration is the deciding factor in how long students have to wait to vote.
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