RICHMOND — Virginia officials estimate the price tag for drawing new legislative boundaries as part of the state’s redistricting is $10 million and say the bulk of the cost will be borne by localities.
Cash-strapped counties and cities are scrambling to find millions of dollars to pay for new equipment, poll-worker training and voter education in time for the Aug. 23 primaries.
In Fairfax, the state’s largest county, officials project it will cost more than $750,000. In Prince William County, officials have budgeted $260,000.
Charles Judd, chairman of the Virginia State Board of Elections, described the expense as an “unfunded mandate” by legislators. “You have these real costs,” Judd said. “We wanted to ring the bell, sound the alarm.”
The General Assembly approved a plan in April that creates an unknown number of new precincts and breaks up 224 precincts across Virginia to redraw maps for the state Senate and House of Delegates as part of the once-a-decade process.
Donald Palmer, secretary of the State Board of Elections, estimates the new precincts and split existing precincts will cost about $5 million each for a total of $10 million.
Each split precinct requires local elections officials to create polling places that use voting machines and signs and provide informational guides for about $25,000 a precinct.
An initial plan divided more than 500 precincts, but that number was gradually lowered as lawmakers worked for weeks to draw new maps. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) vetoed the legislature’s first attempt at redrawing the districts, and eventually a few more precincts were rejoined.
The final House plan has 109 split precincts and the Senate plan 115.
But Judd questioned legislators’ decision to break up so many precincts as they drew lines that some advocates say protect incumbents and punish challengers.
Judd said local election officials are prepared to handle the costs associated with new precincts that come from population growth but not from precinct splits. “How many precincts are necessary to split?” he asked.
Legislators say the changes were made as required by law. “It has to be done under the one-man, one-vote provision,” said Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), the architect of the House plan.
Jones said that some adjustments were based on local registrars’ requests and that other precincts were rejoined during the process. In the House, delegates voted to rejoin precincts in Norfolk and the Richmond area after McDonnell vetoed the original plan.
Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax) said the Senate plan split fewer precincts than a decade ago. “In many instances, we tried to minimize splits because of voter confusion,” he said.
The revised maps bring the 140 districts of the Democratic-led Senate and Republican-controlled House into alignment with population shifts outlined in the 2010 Census.
The high-growth region of Northern Virginia would gain a new Senate seat and three new House districts under the plan being reviewed by the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia as required by law.
The Senate district includes Prince William and Loudoun counties. The three new House districts include two seats largely centered in growing Loudoun and Prince William and one that includes a portion of Prince William and part of Stafford County.
Legislators will return June 9 to continue their special session on redistricting, this time to draw new boundaries for the state’s 11 congressional districts. Officials say those additional costs will be minimal.
Palmer said as much as $2.5 million in federal money may be available to the state through the Help America Vote Act, approved by Congress after the 2000 presidential election. The state, he said, can send the funds — $1 million for equipment and $1.5 million for voter education — to local governments.
“Localities are responsible,” he said. “But these are major changes. We are trying to find ways we can help.”
In Fairfax, which has 700,000 registered voters, the county has 40 split precincts — up from nine a decade ago, general registrar Edgardo Cortes said. The Board of Supervisors has allocated $450,000, but he expects the cost to be at least $750,000.
In Prince William, which has 200,000 registered voters, the county counts 44 split precincts, general registrar Betty Weimer said.
In Arlington County, which has 136,000 registered voters, the Board of Supervisors has budgeted $87,000 for voter education, but Deputy Registrar Donna Patterson said the office had not determined the cost of split or new precincts.
Loudoun officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.