Elections are expensive. And with money tight, election offices across the country are facing cutbacks.
This means voters could be in for some surprises — such as longer lines and fewer voting options — when they turn out for next year's primary and general elections.
A lot of decisions about the 2012 elections are being made today. How many voting machines are needed? Where should polling places be located? How many poll workers have to be hired?
'We're down to a critical level'
Gail Pellerin, the county clerk in Santa Cruz, Calif., says she's considering trimming the number of voting sites in her county by about 20 percent next year because her budget keeps shrinking.
"Each year, they come back and say, 'Do more with less, you know, we're going to end up having to give you less again,'" she says, adding that her budget for extra workers at election time has also been reduced.
She says this means voters might have to travel farther to cast their ballots, and wait longer for help. Workers in her office also face mandatory furloughs.
And Pellerin, who heads the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, says the state is no longer paying counties to send out absentee ballots or to process mail-in voter registration forms.
"So counties are having to decide whether they're going to continue those programs independently of getting any state funding," she says.
And if they do, they'll have to figure out where they'll get the money.
In South Carolina, the State Election Commission is also feeling the squeeze. In 2000, the office had a budget of over $2 million. Today, it's making do with about $850,000 — a 60 percent cut, says spokesman Chris Whitmire.
"Basically, we're down to a critical level — sort of a bare-bones level — where if we saw any more cuts I think it would have a significant impact on our ability to provide services to counties," he says.
Those services include maintaining South Carolina's statewide voter registration database.
Many election offices across the country face similar challenges next year, when a near-record voter turnout is expected.
Washington state has canceled its state-run presidential primaries to save $10 million. Other states have shortened the number of days for early voting. And many election offices are consolidating precincts, cutting out paper voting guides and encouraging people to cast their ballots by mail — all in an effort to save funds.
Doug Lewis runs The Election Center, a national association of election officials. He says voters should be prepared for slower lines in 2012, at the very least.
"It's all the little cuts that finally add up to saying, 'Holy moly, how do we do this?'" he says.
Lewis is telling his members to put things in the starkest terms when they talk to local budget officials.
"If they cut your budget 20 percent, which 20 percent of the voters do they not want to vote? I mean, this is where we are," he says.
Worry over voting machines
One of the big concerns is the impact budget cuts will have on voting machines. Most places bought new electronic equipment after the 2000 elections. But Charles Stewart, an election expert at MIT, says this new equipment is much more costly to maintain than the old punch-card and lever machines.
"I don't think many people, myself included, really recognized back a decade ago that this computerized equipment has a relatively short lifespan," he says.
In fact, many machines will only last about 10 to 12 years before they need to be replaced, and that time is just around the corner for many jurisdictions. Stewart says some election offices are even deferring or canceling maintenance contracts to save money.
"The worry, of course, is that either machines will fail, causing localities to have to kind of double up or to borrow machines, or not have enough on election day," he says.
But it's not all bad news. Beth Dlug, who oversees elections in Allen County, Ind., got a reprieve last week. The county council reversed its decision to make her run the 2012 elections with less money than she has to run this year's much smaller municipal elections.
"We are just so relieved. We were very, very concerned about how it was going to affect the election," Dlug says.
Now, she won't have to cut hundreds of poll workers and voting machines next year as she had feared. But it's too late to revive her plan to set up satellite voting sites to encourage early voting — a move intended to save money in the long run.