Transparency initiatives fumble forward
Cutbacks to federal and state services seem to dominate in recent news, so it is no surprise that upcoming expenditures set to stretch budgets further garnish increasing scrutiny. As election season draws nearer and the 2012 presidential campaigns begin to pick up steam, candidates are focusing on how to control spending. But as the federal government drowns in nearly $15 trillion of debt and aggregate state debt exceeds $4 trillion, rising debt issues should not only be a policy platform for politicians. The very fact that elections themselves cost states additional resources should concern constituencies as well; however, determining just what those costs may be is proving difficult despite continuing pushes for budget transparency.
Following the original passage of the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, transparency initiatives in federal and state governments began taking shape. Activist resources dedicated to promoting government transparency, such as Sunshine Review, now publish extensive data resources for citizens and activists, including detailed auditing and spending reports. In the last few years, the dedication of organizations to encourage state and local governments to uphold transparency laws led to widespread, user-friendly access to state and local information.
Road blocked: 2012 election costs
Total disclosure is not pervasive, particularly among the states. Recently, an attempt to predict the financial burden on the states of holding 2012 state and presidential elections unearthed startlingly confusing data.
Initial research began with a study of the Help American Vote Act (HAVA) signed into law in 2002, following the Presidential election recount catastrophe. The legislation aimed at improving voting conditions to avoid similar meltdowns by establishing minimum election administration standards for the states. Since funding began in 2003, the federal government allocated $2,572,343,435 to assist states with implementing new election processes. Given the federal budget crisis and upcoming federal super committee cuts, the states probably cannot continue to rely on this funding to float additional election year monetary burdens.
Yet, attempting to research how much election processes might cost the states utilizing respective Secretary of State and federal resources revealed inconclusive, incomplete, and conflicting data. For instance, determining state-specific voter turnout percentages yielded completely different figures in many cases, with numbers from different sources varying widely. Assessing how much federal HAVA funding states actually received (as opposed to allocated) and how, or if, that money was spent proved impossible at times. Based on these simple, cursory steps towards identifying where and how nearly $2.5 billion was used and the sporadic, unreliable information available, it is no surprise that critics of the HAVA initiative often charge that states misuse funds to update current polling with regard to accessibility for the disabled rather than true election reform.
Aside from being left without data to compile a reliable understanding of election constraints on state budgets, the bigger challenge lies ahead in continuing to push for accurate reporting. It is important to recognize that while the transparency effort is making great gains, there is still a lot of room for improvement. While it is ideal to believe that state governments will continue to strive towards proactive disclosure, the real burden falls on citizens and activists to continue to push for complete transparency. Without such endeavors, efforts to track and contain costs in the future are futile.