June 23, 2010

Audit finds serious flaws at Maryland elections board

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By Barbara Pash

For MarylandReporter.com

The State Board of Elections does not do a good job monitoring voter registration and overseeing local election boards, state auditors said in a new report, and the board has serious deficiencies in handling accounts receivable, cash, equipment and payroll, even failing to report a $2 million budget shortfall.

Some of the same problems were found in a 2006 audit, but elections officials still hadn’t properly addressed them, the audit said.

Bruce Myers, the legislature’s chief auditor, called the findings “disappointing” since these were “long-standing issues.”

With the primary election in less than three months, Myers said the board has time to fix some of the issues “but not all.”

“There are a lot of things [in the audit] and there are some things they can do now and some they have already done but not everything [will get done] by September,” said Myers.

But Linda Lamone, administrator of the elections board, said, “There will be no problem whatsoever with the primaries. The auditor pointed out things to strengthen the oversight [of the local boards] and we have already done that.”

“Voter registration is a major focus of this office,” Lamone said. “That’s our biggest division and we are devoted to taking care of the major responsibilities of the local boards.”

State Sen. Verna Jones, a Baltimore City Democrat who is co-chair of the Joint Audit Committee, acknowledged there was disagreement between the elections board and the auditors over some issues but felt that the agency generally agreed with the audit.

Jones was not worried about the fall elections. In her opinion, the board “will have in place what is needed to avoid any problems, especially adequate training for local election officials and standardized regulatory action.”

The audit evaluated the elections board from March 1, 2006 to June 30, 2009.  The report said that six of the nine deficiencies found in the previous audit hand not been addressed.

The audit found that controls over cash receipts and accounts receivable were “seriously deficient.” The audit found that SBE failed to report $2 million in unfunded liabilities to the Comptroller’s Office for the fiscal year 2009 budget.

“SBE had $5.1 million they were supposed to pay but they only had money in their budget to cover $3.1 million.” Myers said. “So they are short $2 million,” representing  both budget and financial reporting problems at the election board. He described the board’s internal controls as “sloppy.”

Lamone called the audit “fair” and said that it had good suggestions for SBE to follow, but she also defended her agency. “A lot of the financial things [in the audit] are due to staff turnover. We didn’t have the people in the office to do them,” she said.

In its summary, the audit found conditions it considers to be “significant deficiencies in the design or operation of internal controls that could adversely affect SBE’s ability to maintain reliable financial records, operate effectively and efficiently, and/or comply with applicable laws, rules and regulations.”

In addition, the summary found “significant instances of noncompliance with applicable laws, rules, or regulations.”

Lamone indicated that there is ongoing disagreement between the election board and the auditors over how much oversight the agency exercises over the local boards.

The auditors believe the state board “should send a team of five or six people and spend three to four months going over [records], as they do” when conducting an audit,” Lamone said. “I don’t have the staff to go out and do that.”

“It’s an economic situation and it’s highly unlikely that the governor and the General Assembly will give me additional funds to do that,” she said.

Audit Findings

General Assembly auditors faulted the State Board of Elections for:

•    “Several deficiencies” in oversight of the local election boards. “Procedures were not sufficient to ensure the propriety of the statewide voter registration database,” both in adding to or deleting voter registrations.

•    The state board did not ensure that local boards removed convicted felons from the voter registration database.

•    Despite being specified in the contract with the vendor, SBE “has not obtained an independent audit of system controls over the statewide voter registration system.”

•    SBE did not conduct “formal comprehensive reviews of the local boards’ compliance with election laws and regulations, such as those related to absentee and provisional balloting.”

•    Controls over cash receipts and accounts receivable were “seriously deficient.”