I talk a lot about election costs on this blog … and when I do, I’m usually discussing how states and localities are finding ways to spend less on elections in order to make their budgets work. Recently, however, we’ve seen two stories that involve funding challenges for election offices, both involving a a twist that has an impact on election administrators’ bottom lines. One story is already familiar if you’ve been following this blog. Last week, New York City’s Independent Budget Office (IBO) released a report estimating the cost of a Citywide election in 2012 at approximately $23 million per election. As the report notes, that figure is particularly significant because it represents the extra funds required for a fourth election made necessary by the legislature’s failure to harmonize the election calendar in the wake of a federal court order.
We typically have three citywide elections in a year when the terms for state and federal officeholders are up for vote. But this year a federal judge ruled that New York State’s scheduling of its Congressional primaries in September, in conjunction with the state primaries for Assembly and Senate, would not leave enough time to get absentee ballots to military personnel overseas before the general election in November.
Albany officials could have shifted state legislative primaries to June 26 as well, but chose not to. With New York’s legislative session scheduled to run until June 21, the State Senate balked at the idea of holding an election just five days later that would leave them little time to get home and campaign. So counties across the state pony up more money to cover the cost of an additional day for voters to go to the polls. For the city this meant adding $23 million to the Board of Election’s budget. The funds cover expenditures such as printing ballots, transporting voting machines to the city’s more than 1,300 polling sites, and paying about 30,000 poll workers.
The report does note that low turnout in some elections this year has resulted in some cost savings, but the additional $23 million due to the legislature’s inaction is essentially gone. In North Carolina, election officials have a different problem. There, the legislature stripped $664,000 in state matching funds that would have freed up about $4 million in federal funds under the Help America Vote Act. The action was particularly frustrating for local officials, who believed that the funds had been secured, only to see them fall through at the last minute. Legislators’ explanation for the decision was simple: matching funds or no, the state simply couldn’t afford the allocation. According to the News-Observer:
Rep. David Lewis, R-Dunn, vice chairman of the House Finance Committee, said the funding was axed as leaders were scrambling to find cuts that would have a minimal impact over the next year.”We literally were just trying to find every dime we could out of the budget,” Lewis said. “While it was tempting to grab this federal money, we looked back and we said, that’s probably how they felt when the first Medicaid bill came out.”