HR 811, Unfunded Mandates, and the Protection of Civil Rights

A small but vocal contingent of fiscal conservatives have responded to the unwarranted complaints of elections officials about the potential of an unfunded mandate for the voting system security requirements proposed in The Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007 (HR 811). Still smarting from the previous Congress’ unwillingness to fully fund the Help America Vote Act of 2002, county clerks and Secretaries of State have been skeptical that Congress will actually come through with the $1.1 Billion authorized in the bill.

However, tying HR 811’s mandate to appropriations would set a dangerous precedent for eliminating the civil rights exemption in the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA). In enacting the reform measure, Congress recognized that the protection of civil rights superseded vagaries of funding allocations.

HR 811 fully funds the voting system requirements in the bill with more than $1 billion, and authorizes more funding for the audit requirements ($100 million annually) than the Congressional Budget Office deemed necessary ($50 to $60 million). In addition, as confirmed by the text of HR 811’s CBO Score, “All provisions of H.R. 811 would be excluded from the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act."

Leadership and the Appropriations Committee should calm the fears of election officials and their representatives in Congress by publicly committing to fully fund HR 811.

No elected official wants to offer an opponent a pocketbook campaign talking point. But ensuring the accuracy of election results should not be left to the discretion of the Appropriators – requiring that elections be auditable and audited is common sense and long overdue.

Every piece of authorizing legislation is a potential unfunded mandate – HR 811 is not unique in this respect. But is it appropriate to choose this bill to fight this battle of principle? Of course not -- and that is why both the Help America Vote Act of 2002 and HR 811 were exempt from the Unfunded Mandate Reform Act.

To block HR 811 on the grounds that it is an unfunded mandate would not only be cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, it would eviscerate a critical piece of civil rights protection to the detriment of all voting rights bills that follow – the exclusion for voting rights bills in the Unfunded Mandate Reform Act.