New NCSL Report Focuses on How States, Localities “Split the Bill” on Election Costs

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NCSL’s Wendy Underhill and her colleague Katy Owens Hubler from Democracy Research LLC have a guest piece in the latest electionlineWeekly summarizing their new report The Price of Democracy: Splitting the Bill for Elections –

“The cost is one of the most important aspects of the problem of election administration. It is, of course, secondary to honesty, accuracy, and the convenience of the electors, but nevertheless is of great importance.”  — Joseph P. Harris, Ph.D., “Election Administration in the United States,” 1934

Th[e] new NCSL report, “The Price of Democracy: Splitting the Bill for Elections,” is the result of two years of studying all things related to elections and costs, addressing questions such as:  What are the costs associated with running elections? What state policy choices relate to costs? What funding mechanisms are in use in the states? Can money buy security?

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from our work on election costs is this: Money matters.

Not that money is the only factor when making decisions about election policy. There’s also turnout, reliability, accessibility, accuracy and a host of other values. Democracy is not a place for cutting corners.

Here are 10 more takeaways for legislators and other policymakers:

1. Elections aren’t priceless—it’s just that no one has put a price on them yet. Does the United States spend a billion dollars a year running elections? $10 million? No one knows. States know how much they spend on roads, health care, education and other big-ticket items, but no one knows how much they spend on elections, the backbone of democracy. State budgets typically do not include a dedicated line item for election expenses. Instead, they may be folded into the budget of the chief election official or other state agencies. At the local level, some election administrators, especially those who seek reimbursement for services they provide to other entities, may have a good cost analysis, but others may not. Good research on election costs is slim; data collection efforts are just beginning. States can facilitate collection of data that will help with comparisons within a state, and perhaps someday, across state lines.

2. States are in charge of elections. The U.S. Constitution gives states the right to regulate elections. Two caveats: historically, states have authorized local jurisdictions to run elections, although that is changing. And, over time, federal requirements have set the framework for elections.

3. Funding can come from different levels of government. Funding can, and to some extent does, come from three levels of government: local, state and federal. None of these is flush with cash. In 2002, with the enactment of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), approximately $3 billion was provided by the federal government to the states for upgrades to registration and voting systems. That money is largely gone, and state and local governments are figuring out a new plan. Each state has a somewhat different approach.

4. Tech (and security) needs are the current drivers of election costs at the state level. While elections technology costs are just one part of the overall costs of elections, they are the driving cost in policy conversations, at least at the legislative level. That’s because most states are looking to replace their equipment before the 2020 presidential election.

5. Security requires good protocols, well-trained staff and adequate funding. In any IT environment, security is a big component. Elections systems require protection as good as—or better than—any other government or business process or service.

6. States maintain and secure voter registration databases. The list of voters is kept at the state level, though the state works closely with local jurisdictions to update and maintain it. Security is an increasingly important consideration here, though much of the cost falls to states.

7. States provide resources or assistance in other ways, too. Election costs can be broken down into many categories, some obvious and some less so. On top of sharing costs between different jurisdictions, paying for technology and voter registration databases, at least some states pay for:  

  • Statewide voter information
  • Training for local election officials
  • Compensation for local election officials
  • Ballots or other supplies
  • Polling places 

8. Policy choices on how elections are conducted can affect overall costs. Legislators decide whether to maintain traditional Election Day, precinct-based elections, or to move toward alternatives such as using more pre-Election Day voting options—vote by mail, early in-person voting—or vote centers. The choices legislators make can affect the bottom line, even if it is often hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons.

9. States have choices on where to look for money to fund elections. These include direct appropriations, statewide bond measures and dedicated revenue streams.

10. Recently, states have used task forces to scope out their elections needs and options. Because elections are a shared responsibility, legislatures are asking that task forces—including legislators, executive branch administrators and local election officials—work to develop solutions for funding elections technology, approaching security and considering new options on how to run elections.

As many readers know, figuring out the cost of elections has been a longstanding (yet elusive) interest of mine; this report is an excellent overview of both the importance of that effort and the challenges involved and I recommend taking a look at it in its entirety. Congratulations to Wendy, Katy and the fantastic and hardworking team at NCSL for this report (and thanks to Mindy Moretti at electionline for sharing it with the community)!

Stay tuned …

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