Money Matters: Check, Please

Posted July 22, 2008 at 6:40pm

The Election Assistance Commission released a study on Tuesday detailing the nearly $3 billion in federal funds allocated to states so far to update voting equipment, train poll workers and implement other requirements introduced by the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

[IMGCAP(1)]According to the study, many states continue to squirrel away the money, spending just two-thirds of it — $1.99 billion — and earning more than $230 million combined in interest payments.

Eleven states or territories have spent less than half of the money allocated on electronic voting machines and other equipment updates.

For example, New York, whose lawmakers routinely exempt the state from federal voting-equipment requirements — claiming voters prefer Nixon-era lever machines — has spent just $16 million of its allotted $220 million in federal funds, generating the Empire State’s HAVA account about $27 million in interest.

Nearly all of New York’s money has been spent on administration costs, poll worker training and assisting disabled and non-native English speakers on Election Day, according to the report.

Oklahoma, too, has let most of its federal set-aside cash sit idle, spending about 10 percent of its $33 million payout on equipment and projects. But unlike New York, the Sooner State has accrued no interest on its HAVA account.

New Mexico, Ohio and Utah were the only states that spent all of their HAVA money from 2003 to 2007, a total of nearly $180 million for equipment upgrades, voter list development and federal-election administration.

In 2007 alone, states spent about $387 million overall, according to the report, including 64 percent for “improving,

acquiring, leasing, modifying or replacing voting systems and technology and methods for casting and counting votes.”

Last year, states spent 7 percent of the appropriated money “to improve the administration of elections for federal office.” Over 10 percent of the cash appropriated was “uncategorized,” according to EAC’s findings, “because many of the expenditures were not reported clearly or reports were missing.”

The report also concluded that “less than 1 percent of funds were expended on either implementing provisional voting or providing voter information at the polling place.”

None of the money appropriated, according to the EAC, was spent on “establishing identification requirements for first-time voters who register to vote by mail,” while less than 1 percent was spent on provisional ballot programs.

Hillary Clinton: A Retrospective? A three-judge panel ruled late last week that a conservative group’s film about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) amounted to a feature-length political ad, whose marketing could be regulated by federal campaign finance laws.

The group, Citizens United, asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in December 2007 for permission to release and promote through television commercials its motion picture, “Hillary: The Movie,” during the 30-day blackout periods imposed on outside groups ahead of primary elections.

Last Friday, the court threw out the case, agreeing with the Federal Election Commission that the movie and its ads were attempts to sidestep contribution limits and other federal campaign finance laws.

The scripts for the ads, which never aired, were included in court documents and included Ann Coulter, Dick Morris and other cable-news bomb-throwers panning Clinton while alluding to the movie, which was planned for release on cable and DVD.

In one script for a 10-second spot, a narrator opens, “First, a kind word about Hillary Clinton,” before Coulter is patched in, “she looks good in a pantsuit.”

“Now, a movie about the everything else,” the narrator says.

In another proposed ad, Coulter says “at least with Bill Clinton, he was just good-time Charlie. … Hillary’s got an agenda.” Clinton White House pollster Morris’ take: “Hillary is the closest thing we have in America to a European socialist.”

Not surprisingly, campaign finance reform groups strongly opposed the conservative group’s attempted end run around “electioneering communications” provisions. The Supreme Court declined to take the case earlier this year.

Shortly after the district court ruled, the Campaign Legal Center’s Gerry Hebert wrote on his blog that the group merely “sought to ride the coattails of the Supreme Court’s decision in Wisconsin Right to Life” v. FEC and perhaps push the bounds of the new John Roberts-led Supreme Court, which has shown hostility to some campaign finance restrictions on the books.

Hebert wrote that the latest decision reinforces the court’s nearly unanimous decision in 2003 upholding the bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign reform measure and “that the disclosure provisions for electioneering communications are constitutional.”

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