McAuliffe slash and burn budget cuts cause layoffs at the VA Department of Elections

With less than a month before the November General Election, the Virginia Department of Elections (ELECT) announced yesterday an immediate reorganization of the agency, including laying off three staffers and dissolving the Election Services section.  The move comes as a result of Governor McAuliffe’s demand that all state agencies cut 5% of their FY 2015 and 7% of their FY 2016 budgets to help off-set a projected $881 million budget deficit over the next two fiscal years. The ELECT cuts represent a reduction in General Fund spending of $146,828.

Yes, you heard that right.  Twenty days away from the mid-term elections, Virginia’s Department of Elections is reorganizing and cutting staff.   The agency will be heading into the November election with five vacancies, including the Deputy Commissioner and the head of the Election Administration section.

It bears repeating that this federal election includes a statewide Senate race, three open-seat Congressional races (in the 7th, 8th and 10th Districts) and a variety of local elections.  We are also heading into the first major general election with Virginia’s new photo ID requirements being in effect.

Is now really the best time to be cutting the office that oversees elections in the Commonwealth?

Three weeks before an election?

To save less than $200,000 to fix a budget deficit of $881 million?

As a Republican, you’re not going to see me complaining about cutting government spending, but there are right ways and wrong ways to do it.  Cutting the state Elections Department budget and forcing layoffs three weeks before an election is the wrong way to do it, especially when you’re about to implement new regulations that a good portion of the population believes will disenfranchise voters and reduce voter turnout.

Across the board cuts are generally a bad idea in any fiscal environment.  They hit good programs and critical programs as hard as non-critical programs.  It’s hard to understand why agencies like ELECT, the State Police, and the Department of Health are treated the exact same way as the Virginia Commission for the Arts, or any of the many museums and regional commissions and agencies.  Some agencies can absorb cuts better than others, and when you’re dealing with agencies like ELECT that are traditionally underfunded and understaffed, the cuts and layoffs make it even tougher for them to do their job – a job that is a core function of government.  ELECT is not a “nice to have” kind of agency.  It’s a must have.  Why treat core government functions the same way as those that aren’t?

The answer, of course, is politics – it’s easier to get cuts when you can just point to an across the board cut rather than having to duke it out with each agency and their lobby, picking winners and losers.  But when these across the board cuts have a greater impact on agencies with critical missions, politics shouldn’t be the deciding factor.  Doing what’s right by the citizenry should be #1.

It’s especially disconcerting to see this happening with the photo ID requirements coming into effect.  The photo ID system, which is administered locally but supported by ELECT, uses the statewide voter registration system to function.  When it goes down, localities are calling ELECT for support.  In Fairfax, we’ve already had problems with the system going down on weekends and not being able to get support from Richmond.  That’s only going to increase as more localities with fewer resources than ours are ramping up in the weeks before the election.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I find it frustrating to see these kinds of changes implemented less this close to an election.  Tinkering with anything related to elections this close to one immediately sets off warning bells in a variety of places, and it helps ramp up cynicism and suspicion – the last thing we need in an electorate that is already drowning in cynicism and suspicion of government.

Now is absolutely not the time to cut staff and budgets in the Commonwealth’s election agency. I also don’t understand why, when you’ve got the Governor on record saying he opposes photo ID and he’s concerned that many Virginians don’t know about the photo ID requirements, we are going to make it even harder for the state agency tasked with ensuring photo ID doesn’t impact voters to do its job.

Governor McAulife, in an interview with USA9 here in Northern Virginia asked “why are we making it harder for people to vote?”

I’ve got a question for him: Why are we making it harder for the Department of Elections to help people vote?

Given how small a number these cuts represent compared with the deficit, it’s hard to believe that there aren’t other areas that can withstand a $148,000 impact without major damage to their operations.  ELECT should be exempted from these cuts, at least until the end of the year.  At that point, with only a handful of special elections to worry about and less pressure coming from entire Commonwealth, these cuts and staff losses will be easier to deal with.

We don’t need any more reasons for voters to question if our elections are legitimate or if sitting politicians are trying to play games with the system.  Cutting ELECT a mere 20 days before the election was a bad idea.