Ashcroft requesting $38.3 million for election costs

Missouri could be looking to spend additional resources on elections this year.

Several expected ballot measures, more absentee ballots and conducting the 2022 August primary and November midterm elections will increase costs this year, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft presented the Secretary of State Office’s budget requests for the 2023 fiscal year, which begins July 1, to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday morning.

The secretary of state largely stuck to the budget requests Gov. Mike Parson laid out in his executive budget, which totals $38 million for elections.

One of the largest costs will be proportionally reimbursing local election authorities for the cost of running elections that involve statewide candidates, statewide ballot measures, and state senators or representatives. Since 2018, the Secretary of State’s Office has been required to reimburse for the proportional cost of administering those elections if the Legislature appropriates the funds.

The executive budget provides $6.3 million of general revenue to reimburse local authorities for this year’s elections.

Ashcroft is also requesting $4.2 million in general revenue from the supplemental budget to reimburse local election authorities for the state’s share of 2020 election costs. That $4.2 million would be added to $2.1 million in federal funds the department has saved. The Legislature didn’t appropriate the funds in 2020 amid COVID-19 concerns.

Ashcroft and Parson are also asking for the usual $4.28 million standing appropriation for the Election Administration Improvement fund, which currently sits around $22 million.

Ashcroft said the fund is used to pay for material election costs, maintenance of the state’s centralized voter registration system and grants to local election authorities, but not the state’s share of election costs sent to local authorities.

The entire fund isn’t spent each year to better manage election costs, Ashcroft said. It also ensures the Secretary of State’s Office has some money on hand if the state has to call special elections in any given year.

“Every year we ask for a little bit more than we think we’re going to need, and then in every four years, we try not to ask for as much and use the balance we’ve built up for the presidential preference primary,” he said.

The Secretary of State’s Office has never spent its full Election Administration Improvement fund appropriation from the state.

In addition to money to reimburse local election authorities and the usual appropriation to the Election Improvement fund, Ashcroft is requesting $5.25 million to publish public notices of statewide ballot measures in the media. He’s expecting there to be several.

“We know that there will be an HJR (House Joint Resolution) dealing with how the treasurer may make investments, we think it’s plausible there will be a marijuana IP (Initiative Petition) of some sort,” Ashcroft said. “Potentially ranked choice voting, legalizing of sports gaming, and school choice are all initiative petitions that appear like they have money and organization behind them, so that’s why we’re asking for $5.25 million I’m afraid.”

Ashcroft suggested the lawmakers also grant his office up to 10 percent flexibility with the funds in the event costs aren’t that high. He said the additional funds would go to support libraries around the state.

Another major election expense will be reimbursing local election authorities for the cost of absentee ballots and mailing them to voters.

Ashcroft said his office usually requests $70,000 for absentee ballots in a normal year, but this year his office is requesting an additional $130,000.

He said he’s not expecting voters to use absentee ballots as much as they did during the 2020 election, but the usual $70,000 likely won’t be enough. The state spent roughly $477,000 on absentee ballots during the 2020 election cycle, Ashcroft said, which came from a combination of state and federal dollars.

The price to mail a single ballot can vary from the price of the stamp to more than $2 depending on the area, Ashcroft said.

The state has also received more than $15 million in federal grants to improve election security, Ashcroft said, which is included in the Election Administration Improvement fund.

“We’re using those for election security, and we’re using those to send in the whitehat hackers to every election authority that will allow us — it’s their choice — then we’re providing grants for them to buy equipment or services they feel they need to make sure they’re properly secure,” Ashcroft said.

He said the state is also paying third-party groups to watch election systems in local jurisdictions that permit it.

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee asked about whether the secretary of state’s budget provides him with the resources to audit local election authorities.

The Legislature has historically granted the secretary of state’s office flexibility within its core budget, but Ashcroft said they haven’t used it.

He said he’s still asking for that flexibility in his office’s core budget, but he would seek approval from the General Assembly before directing funds for election audits and other unappropriated functions. But, he said, his office could probably use its Election Administration Improvement fund to complete audits.

In addition to election costs, Ashcroft’s budget requests include continued funding to support the governor’s 5.5 percent pay increase for state employees, funding to continue previous pay raises and several million for state libraries.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how much the Secretary of State’s Office is requesting for election costs and election staffing. The executive budget provides $38.3 million that can be spent on elections, but the office has never used its full elections appropriation.