WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - In some parts of southeastern North Carolina, the 2018 midterm elections have yet to be settled but the region is already gearing up for the 2019 municipal elections.
In New Hanover County, this year’s elections are going to be more expensive.
It will cost the City of Wilmington $111,798 to hold elections this year with seats for mayor and three spots on the city council up for grabs.
That’s roughly 20 percent or $18,000 more than the last municipal election in 2017.
Wilmington won’t be alone — Wrightsville Beach and Kure Beach will also see proportional increases — but with the majority of the county’s registered voters within city limits, Wilmington will bear the brunt of the increase.
The main reason for the jump in cost is New Hanover County moving away from electronic voting machines and back to paper ballots.
“That’s why you’re seeing that big increase,” said Rae Hunter-Havens, director of the New Hanover County Board of Elections.
In the last few municipal elections, the county has primarily used iVotronic voting machines, and only using paper ballots for curbside voters, provisional ballots and absentee by mail ballots.
New Hanover is one of 36 counties, including Pender, Bladen and Brunswick, that for years primarily used the iVotronic for absentee one-stop voting and ADA-compliant voting.
In 2013, however, the North Carolina General Assembly voted to de-certify the iVontronic due to security concerns.
The iVotronic and others like it produce a digital record, which while still an official record of the ballot being cast, is harder to track than a paper ballot.
Counties can still use touchscreen machines, but only those that mark and then print a paper ballot, which is then counted.
Hunter-Havens said there was also a push from voters to move away from the touchscreen technology.
“Voters really are not as confident in the iVotronics,” she said. “There was a lot of pressure and requests to just really have that paper trail, so to speak.”
She said voters like having the paper ballot in hand and watching it be fed into the tabulator.
While the iVotronic will not be fully phased out until Dec. 1, Hunter-Havens said New Hanover County wanted to go ahead and begin adjusting to the change.
Starting with the 2018 primary election, she said the county began only using the iVotronic for ADA voting, and went back to paper ballots otherwise.
”The board chose just to continue with paper ballots since that’s kind of the direction we’re going into,” Hunter-Havens said, “so that the precinct officials can become familiar with that process, and so voters feel confident in the election, that it’s accurate, that it’s fair.”
Moving back to paper ballots isn’t cheap.
In any election, counties are required to print enough ballots for at least 50 percent of the total number of voters. Wilmington has around 90,000 registered voters, so at least 45,000 ballots will be printed this fall.
In 2017, the city was charged $272 for ballots. This year it will be $11,780.
Wilmington isn’t alone, however. Doing away with the iVotronic statewide is expected to cost more than $10 million.
While moving away from the iVotronic’s touchscreen, technology costs are still going up.
The main culprit there, Hunter-Havens said, is the county’s move to rent laptops for everything but one-stop voting in this municipal election. The county purchased laptops in 2011, but those machines have become obsolete over the last eight years.
At this point, Hunter-Havens said, the county had to decide to either buy enough new laptops to run elections or rent all of them.
“Given the fact that we’re kind of at an impasse now, we had to either purchase laptops to use for one stop and training, or we entirely transition to renting laptops for all those events,” she said.
Though it will raise costs in one category, she said, it allows the county to meet encryption requirements set by the state and avoid machines becoming obsolete, which saves money in the long run.
For Wilmington, it means an increase of $2,535 for the 2019 election cycle.
Wage costs have also increased.
New Hanover County employs the services of a temporary staffing agency to assist in the central office and handle the workload that comes along with an election. Previously, these workers were paid $13.31 per hour, but that cost has risen to $18.20.
For the 2017 race, which only has a single one-stop location, Wilmington’s share of the cost is increasing by $3,110.
The 2019 municipal election cycle begins after the turn of Wilmington’s fiscal year, which begins July 1, so the costs can be accounted for when council considers the 2019-20 budget.
Emails obtained by WECT show the city’s budget officials did want an official explanation for the increase, which was provided by Hunter-Havens.
In addition to the aforementioned reasons, Hunter-Havens told City Clerk Penny Spicer-Sudbury that changes approved by the General Assembly in 2018 have changed the schedule for early voting.
One of those changes is requiring all one-stop voting sites be open from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. on weekdays. If the Board of Elections office is used as a one-stop site, it must comply with those hours as well. There are also new rules about how sites are operated on the weekends.
Hunter-Havens said keeping the sites open longer on weekdays and dealing with the new weekend regulations has increased costs as well..
Filing for the 2019 municipal elections begins in July.