ElectionlineWeekly on the (Varying) Costs of Vote-by-Mail

[Image via oxygenfinancial]

The April 23, 2020 electionlineWeekly focuses on a topic certain to be top of mind for every election official nationwide: vote-by-mail – or more specifically, the cost of vote-by-mail. Check it out:

The next time you fly, whenever that may eventually be, if you ask everyone on the flight how much they paid for their ticket, you’ll get a different answer from just about every passenger.

The same can be said for how much it costs to conduct an election entirely or mostly by mail. It’s a bit different for every jurisdiction.

Election costs are traditionally difficult to gather given the dispersed nature of funding sources — federal dollars, state reimbursements, fees for services, general funds, etc.— as well as the functions across different governmental agencies (in some states).

Another obstacle is the way we talk about elections. The same term is used to describe different things (IE “early voting”) so it isn’t as easy as simply comparing election office budgets.

“However, if we break it down to the bare materials and functions—those specific to the policy being analyzed, we can get a semblance of understanding of baseline costs,” said Tammy Patrick senior advisor, Elections at the Democracy Fund.

Additionally, Patrick noted, the answer sought needs to be specified in order to ask the correct question. For instance, there is a difference between “what does it cost to conduct an all-mail election” and “what costs are specific to an all-mail election”?

As more and more jurisdictions ramp up their absentee/vote-by-mail capabilities for still-to-come primaries and of course November, we wanted to take a look at what officials can expect the final bill to look like, where they can cut financial corners and where they shouldn’t.

So before we get into cost cutting measures, just how much should it cost — generally?

Earlier this month, the Auburn University and The Election Center released the findings of the Investing in Elections project that surveyed Election Center members about office operations, methods of election and resources.

“The differences between budget, lead staff salaries, and cost per registered voter between mail ballot jurisdictions and all other jurisdictions in our sample are statistically significant. The budget and cost per registered voter figures are significantly greater in the mail ballot only jurisdictions,” wrote brief authors Kathleen Hale and Mitchell Brown.

“On balance, these data indicate that the jurisdictions in our sample using mail ballot only methods are operating in environments with larger budgets overall. This suggests that jurisdictions that are not currently all mail ballot jurisdictions are at a comparative resource disadvantage to those that do. This has implications for resource outlays in legislative and administrative decision-making for moving to an all vote-by-mail model,” the authors wrote.

In the Vote at Home Scale Plan, the National Vote at Home Institute estimated that it would cost a state like Michigan $37,850,00 to implement a centralized plan and includes all that is needed to mail every voter a ballot, the operational costs to process them, and infrastructure updates.

The Brennan Center has also released a report on the Estimated Costs of COVID-19 Election Resiliency Measures which focuses on a number of measures to make the November 2020 election safe, including expanding absentee/vote-by-mail. In their report Brennan estimates it will cost between $982 million–$1.4 billion nationwide.

“In this moment, everyone is asking what the costs would be in November with scaling up to VBM,” Democracy Fund’s Patrick said. “Here are some of the items to consider as states evaluate their needs: for outbound processes:”

Ballot application average materials and costs 

  • $.15 postcard
  • $.50 postage outbound & return business reply mail
  • $.10 time stamping & scanning
  • $.25 application data entry (60 an hour at $15/hr average)

Ballot packet 

  • $.30 per ballot card (if jurisdiction using paper ballot at the polls, this cost would be same under either system)
  • $.15 per envelope (2-3 depending on privacy sleeve requirement)
  • $.10 per insert
  • $1.00-$6.00 postage (depending on class of service, mailing preparation, bulk discounts, round trip, etc.)

Processing costs vary widely if automated or manual process

  • $1.50 automation processing (via vendor support or insertion/sorting equipment)
  • $15-$20 if entirely manual process

“Review existing costs and contracts,” Patrick advised. “Don’t simply scale up existing — adopt best practices so you are scaling solutions rather than previous problems that didn’t come to light due to small volume. There is a cost to business as usual…”

And even with the most detailed of plans, unexpected costs are going to take you by surprise. It’s the known unknowns.

“The costs that took me a bit by surprise, even with our detailed planning process, was the ‘extra’ costs associated with full integration,” said Neal Kelley, Orange County, California registrar of voters. “There are always hidden costs in integrating systems, but these were pretty large and was frustrating.  If I had to do it all over again I would focus extreme attention on those downstream issues.”

And even for an already large vote-by-mail jurisdiction, the pandemic is changing things. Kelley noted that he’s recently regrouped and increased his extracting capacity by 25% and his scanning capacity by 50% following the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Election administrators may be surprised how much more it costs to scale up a small absentee ballot program to one where 80-90% of your voters maybe voting by mail,” said Hillary Hall, senior advisor for state and local election officials with National Vote at Home.

Here are some areas that may not be obvious:

  • Proper chain of custody procedures for both picking up ballots for processing and internally as ballots make their way through the process
  • Resources for a call/email center.  With new voting methods, calls and emails increase dramatically.  That is why using the best to design the original information and using something like Ballot Scout [a mail ballot tracker] are so important.  Addressing issues on the front end will reduce voters needing to speak with your office.
  • The cost of voters sending in duplicate requests for ballots
  • Setting up a system to track your data on the front end.  This will help you see issues as the election progresses and give you data for the next election.  This is especially important if you still have a primary election before the November election. Some examples of data to collect: processing times each step in ballot processing, staffing, ballots returns
  • Storage for vote by mail records- need to store envelopes and the ballots, time lines for those

Hall said there are some ways officials can cuts costs including staffing levels, polling place consolidation and eliminating the ballot request process. On the staffing front, Hall said ballots take time to process and staffing can be allocated so that it takes place over a few days and without overtime. However, it means elections officials need to manage expectations.

“It is important to fill-in campaigns and parties in ahead of time and keep them updated. The first most important update is to communicate how many ballots have been received after the polls close on election day. Interested parties should also know what ballots may still come in (even if this is a guess, postmark vs close of polls impacts this as does deadlines for overseas and military voters),” Hall said. “The last part that must be updated is daily or twice daily updates on how many ballots have been processed and counted and how many still need to be processed.”

Reynaldo Valenzuela Jr., CERA, director of elections Maricopa County, Arizona noted that the biggest expense in his county is on staffing.

“Initially before automation to assist us with inserting outgoing early voting mail packets, we were caught off guard on how tedious a process it is to manually ready an outgoing packet and all of its contents – and do it correctly without error,” Valenzuela said. “The human capital cost was extraordinary and no matter how well you plan, manual inserting is just not possible once you get past a certain volume, and for us that was at over 400,000.”

None of the costs listed here include estimated costs of additional equipment: insertion/sorter machines, extractors, and central tabulation for those who seek to automate themselves. And that’s something officials will need to seriously consider. Valenzuela stressed the importance of automating the process as much as possible and also provided a list of vendors that make it possible to streamline the vote-by-mail process.

Valenzuela also cautioned that figuring out costs for 2020 could be harder to estimate than down the road.

“In the beginning of no-excuse voting it was quite difficult to estimate the number of requests that would come in and every election had differing request volumes based on the type of election. So unique supplies for each cycle were hard to order for,” Valenzuela explained. “However, we quickly grew into a universal set of items that were valid for any election to include making the ballot width (3 column) standard for outgoing and incoming envelopes so they would properly fit versus using 1, 2 or 3 column optical scan ballots. For the most part though, it was a quick set standard operating procedure for supplies and not too many pain points as far as over budgeting.”

Thanks to electionline’s Mindy Moretti for pulling together this analysis. As the piece suggests, switching to – or dramatically increasing – vote-by-mail is far more complicated than merely putting more ballots in the mail. The extent to which states and localities are thinking about these issues – and committing the time and money to address them – will go a long way toward determining the success of this year’s elections in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay safe – and stay tuned …

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