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Estimating Election Costs - Easier Than It Seems?

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[Image courtesy of Tracy Olson via Creative Commons]

The latest Election Data Dispatch from the election geeks extraordinaire at Pew looks at some cost data from Massachusetts related to the recent special election to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy created by the death of Edward Kennedy.

Pew's Dispatch explains the background for the report:

In 1983, the state mandated that polling places run for an additional three hours to ensure uniformity across the state in non-local elections. In accordance with the Local Mandate Law, the legislature funds the first three hours while municipalities fund the remainder. Because of this mandate, the auditor's office has a 26-year history of collecting data to cost out the first three hours of an election - every biennial election since 1984.

The 2010 report demonstrates the value of such information. Using prior data, the state auditor had predicted that the special election would cost $7.2 million. Actual costs were $7.8 million - or a little more than 8% higher. While that last $600,000 is nothing to sneeze at, the fact that the data gave the state and its localities a sense of cost was extremely valuable.

The current nature of election administration is such that commitment to data collection about costs can help with cost certainty. Most election costs are fixed and do not vary with the number of voters who cast ballots - thus, by gathering sufficient data to see the trends in such costs over time, a jurisdiction can narrow the band of uncertainty and reduce (if not eliminate) fiscal surprises after Election Day.

Given the reality of states' and localities' current fiscal situations, it is imperative that election offices make a commitment to figuring out whet they spend on election administration. The Massachusetts report profiled in Pew's latest Dispatch suggests that doing so can give election offices, policymakers - and even taxpayers - far more certainty about what it takes to fund an election and make plans accordingly.

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