STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
And since we're talking about elections, let's talk about paying for them. Because with money tight, election offices across the country are facing cuts. That means voters could be could be in for surprises; longer lines, fewer voting options, when they turn out for next year's primary and general elections.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: 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?
Gail Pellerin is county clerk in Santa Cruz, California. She says she's considering trimming the number of voting sites there by about 20 percent next year, because her budget keeps shrinking.
GAIL PELLERIN: 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. And my extra help budget is also, you know, those are folks that we bring in during election time to help us out and that's been reduced.
FESSLER: So her voters might have to travel farther to cast their ballots and wait longer for help. Election office workers also face mandatory furloughs. And Pellerin, who's heads the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, says the state's no longer paying counties to send out absentee ballots or to process mail-in voter registration forms.
PELLERIN: So counties are having to decide whether they're going to continue those programs independently of getting any state funding.
FESSLER: And if they do, 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 less than a million - a 60 percent cut, says spokesman Chris Whitmire.
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.
FESSLER: Services such as maintaining a statewide voter registration database. Many election offices face similar challenges next year, when a near record 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: It's all the little cuts that finally add up to saying, holy moly, how do we do this?
FESSLER: Doug Lewis runs The Election Center, a national association of election officials. He says voters should be prepared that lines will likely move more slowly in 2012 - at the very least. He's asked his members to put things in the starkest terms.
LEWIS: If they cut your budget 20 percent, which 20 percent of the voters do they not want to vote, you know? And this is where we are.
FESSLER: One of the biggest concerns is the impact on all those new voting machines purchased after the 2000 elections. Charles Stewart is an election expert at MIT. He says this computerized equipment is much more costly to maintain than the old punch card and lever machines.
CHARLES STEWARD: I don't think many people, myself included, really recognized, back a decade ago, that this computerized equipment has a relatively short lifespan.
FESSLER: About 10 to 12 years, which is right around the corner. Stewart says some cash-strapped election offices are even deferring or canceling maintenance contracts.
STEWARD: The worry, of course, is that either machines will fail, causing, you know, localities to have to kind of double up or to borrow machines, or not have enough on election day.
FESSLER: Another thing to worry about, in an already complicated process. But it's not all bad news. Beth Dlug, who oversees elections in Allen County, Indiana, 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.
BETH DLUG: We are just so relieved. We were very, very concerned about how it was going to affect the election.
FESSLER: Now, she won't have to cut hundreds of poll workers and voting machines next year. Although 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.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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