Seldom does a week goes by that I am not asked by a jurisdiction to provide estimates of election costs for a series of hypothetical scenarios under consideration. In the US there is a wide range of costs for an election depending upon the county, the date, the number of participants and the accounting and billing methods used by a county. Providing an estimate is not a science- it is an art form. An estimate must not understate the actual costs that will be billed nor should it greatly overstate the costs. Estimates which are not in-line with the actual costs undermine the credibility of election officials and invites accountants and financial managers to scrutinize the way election costs are calculated, often opening up a window into the bizarre and byzantine. We live in a society where the price of almost everything we purchase is pre-determined and not subject to negotiation- with the notable exceptions of real estate and autos. The price of a gallon of milk is clearly marked, doesn’t change from one customer to another and does not change between the trek from refrigerator case to the checkstand. The price doesn’t vary by the number other people buying milk from the same store on the same day. The price per ounce is based upon the contents and not by the portion consumed.
When we take our car to a car wash we pay a fixed price to have it cleaned. We are not charged by the wheel, the number of doors or the number of windows. We are paying for a service- to have our car cleaned and these variables and others such as the amount of water used, the number of rags soiled or the number of people working on the car do not change the price or the value of the service.
Free riders are not welcome in our normal world of business transactions. If a pizza is shared four ways we recognize the inherent unfairness in splitting the cost among only three of the four parties. Similarly, if a person asks to tag along on a road trip and offers only to pay the incremental increase in fuel consumption because, after all everyone else was already will to pay the cost of the fuel for the trip, the request would be difficult to seriously consider.
In contrast, the cost of elections for most jurisdictions is characterized by some or all of the scenarios above. Jurisdictions commit to conducting elections with no idea what the final cost will be and with no ability to control the variables which influence the cost. Elections are seldom viewed as a service with a single price. Rather elections are considered a set of commodities or parts with each charged separately. Some jurisdictions (federal and state, courts) never pay their share of an election and shift the costs to others. Some only pay the direct incremental cost of adding their issue to the ballot; in fact, a recent bill passed by the California legislature (SB 279) specifically prohibits counties from charging the proportional cost a specific district seeking to place a measure on the ballot in 9 counties in 2014.