Feature Stories

Putting a price tag on elections

The Carl Vinson Institute of Government in collaboration with the National Association of Counties and with funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts is conducting a nationwide study to find out what it costs local governments to hold elections in the U.S.

While determining the price tag of elections seems straightforward, their full costs are generally unknown and vary widely from state to state.

The study will mark the first time anyone has systematically documented what local governments spend to hold elections.

"To date, nobody knows much of anything about how counties and other governments budget for election spending," said Paula Sanford, public service assistant at the Vinson Institute. "This study will be the first step in understanding how local governments are handling elections and finding a standard way to account for election spending in the United States."

Doing so will enable local governments to compare their expenditures on things like poll worker wages and ballot printing with those of similar areas around the country, and they will be better able to develop a system of budgeting for future elections.

The study also will allow researchers to examine expenditures in areas that have implemented different models of holding elections. The state of Oregon adopted its Vote by Mail initiative in 1998, thereby conducting all elections through the mail and eliminating traditional polling places. Some counties in Colorado allow voters to cast their ballots at any voting center in their county, regardless of the precinct in which they live.

The study will draw its data from a sample from 50 local governments, one from each state. Each government involved in the study will complete a survey detailing expenditures relating to the November 2008 elections.

In addition to accounting for basic costs, the researchers also will try to capture costs that are less evident. The survey will seek to collect information about spending related to storing voting equipment between elections or mailing absentee ballots.

NACo will compile the list of 50 local governments to be included in the study, and the Vinson Institute will mail surveys to them in the spring.

The results of the study will be available in early 2010.

Published Friday,