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Cost-Effective Election Administration: Figuring Savings Means Knowing Spending

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[Photo courtesy of Tracy Olson via Creative Commons]

Government Technology magazine recently profiled Anoka County, MN's efforts to pilot a new web-based election management system which will assist the County's 21 cities in keeping track of voting equipment, polling places, election judges and supplies.

There's a lot of good stuff in the article, especially the process through which the County developed the software in collaboration with their vendor after realizing that existing products in the market didn't meet Anoka's specific needs.

But what really grabbed my eye was the following passage, where County election manager Cindy Reichert said

that the county tried to come up with a concrete dollar number that would be saved by using the software, but due to a variety of factors, couldn't do so. She said that during their attempt to identify savings, city clerks revealed they really didn't keep track of the actual time it took to recruit election judges and run an election, as it was just one part of their overall scope of duties.

This is a problem we are seeing more and more across the nation as election offices seek to control costs and increase efficiency in the wake of the recent recession. Election offices are instituting policies that they are convinced will save their taxpayers money - but because they've never consistently measured the cost of their current operations those savings are difficult (if not impossible) to prove.

Cost measurement - especially allocating labor costs across different functions - is a challenging and decidedly unexciting business. But if election offices are going to make changes to their operations, and defend those changes on the basis of cost-effectiveness, they need to use better cost accounting to support them.

The old retailer's mantra is "it's not what you spend, it's what you save." For the election community, the mantra needs to be "you don't know what you save until you know what you spend."

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