BOSTON — Cities and towns must squeeze already tight budgets next year to afford rules meant to bring voters back to the ballot box.
State Auditor Suzanne Bump has criticized lawmakers for forcing polls to stay open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., without consistently paying the added cost of three more hours of election time.
In addition, election officials next year must allow for early voting and conduct post-election audits, with no money from the state in sight.
“The Legislature extended polling hours to make it easier for citizens to get to the polls before and after work and increase participation in national and state elections,” Bump said. “But these extra hours increased the financial burden on cities and towns ... and this is the responsibility of the state.”
A two-decade-old law mandating that local governments keep extended voting times also requires the state to pick up the cost of poll workers’ longer hours.
But reimbursement often doesn’t show up until long after ballots are counted, prompting a yearly rebuke from the auditor and calls for lawmakers to ante up.
Bump’s office estimates the cost of keeping polls open for three extra hours for the presidential primary next March, a state primary in September, and the Nov. 8 general election will run more than $2.76 million.
That’s $276,500 more than in the 2012 primaries and presidential election.
The added election cost charge for Gloucester is $8,976, according to Bump’s office. It amounts to even more for other North Shore and Merrimack Valley cities: $41,307 in Lawrence, $27,618 for Haverhill, $9,450 for Methuen, $17,566 in Salem, and $9,840 for Newburyport.
Last year lawmakers approved a raft of election changes — including early voting, pre-registration of 16-year-olds and audits of voting machines — that also add to the cost.
Supporters say the new rules will increase participation, make it easier to vote and alleviate long lines. In 2012, about 3.1 million of the state’s 4.3 million registered voters showed up on Election Day, according to Secretary of State William Galvin’s office.
The new rules, however, didn’t come with funding. The Senate Ways and Means Committee previously estimated that early voting alone will cost $3 million to $6 million.
Bump’s estimates don’t include those costs. Cities and towns still await guidance on new rules for early voting, such as when and where voters can cast early ballots and how much it will cost.
“Early voting will mean addition costs for cities and towns that are already cash-strapped. So, the funding needs to follow,” said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents 351 communities.
Beckwith said municipalities face a “a yearly battle” to get reimbursed for the state’s election mandates.
Besides electing a president, voters next year will cast ballots for state and congressional offices and answer a yet-to-be-determined number of ballot questions. Those could include proposals to legalize recreational marijuana, repeal Common Core educational standards, and impose a new tax on people earning more than $1 million a year.
Christian Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the Times and its sister newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.