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Small Isn't Always Beautiful: New Data Suggests Lack of Scale Affects Election Costs in Smaller Jurisdictions

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[Image courtesy of True North]

In case you missed it over the holidays - I know I did - on December 27 Pew's Election Data Dispatches looked at some new research on election costs in California and Colorado. Both studies found - as similar research had in North Dakota - that less-populous counties had a higher cost per registered voter. More specifically (from the Dispatch):

In California, the study examined election expenditures between 1992 and 2008 and found a 1 percent increase in county population correlated with a 0.05 percent decrease in expenditures per registered voter. For example, San Diego County had an average cost of $6.57 per voter, while Modoc County, the third-smallest county in the state, spent $18.07 per voter.

Similarly, the Colorado report found the average cost per voter in 2010 for small counties was $10.21 versus $4.95 for medium counties and $4.92 for large counties.

Why the difference? Both sets of state researchers come to the same conclusion - that small counties lack the economies of scale necessary to dilute the impact of fixed costs for activities like "finding and setting up polling places or voting centers, purchasing and maintaining voting equipment, and hiring and training election workers." Small counties may also lack sufficient numbers to benefit from bulk mail rates for delivery of election materials to voters. All of this conspires to drive up the per-voter cost in less-populous counties.

The lesson, as I observed in the blog post on the original North Dakota data, is that " jurisdictions seeking to control costs must look closely at those line items that are relatively constant over time such as equipment purchase/maintenance", which could "explain the the growing buyer's market in voting technology."

Another approach, which has been discussed in the past, is for smaller jurisdictions to manufacture economies of scale by banding together to get volume discounts on fixed-cost services. Such discussions may intensify as demands for election services increase and available funds for election administration decrease.

Either way, a more discerning eye on the part of election officials regarding not just the amounts but types of election costs the incur may help identify opportunities for savings - especially in smaller jurisdictions where the margin for savings is not as great.

1 Comment


  • Doug points out one very important way in which election administration has avoided learning from public administration in general. If you look at public education, for instance, the number of school districts has declined dramatically over the past century. One highly-cited paper (Kenny and Schmidt 1992) documents, for instance, that the number of school districts in the US declined from 83,642 in 1950 to 15,987 in 1980. I must assume the number has declined even further in the ensuing thirty years. School district consolidation has allowed local communities to take advantage of scale economies and (surprisingly enough) raise the quality of education in the affected areas.

    Of course, the failure of states to consolidate voting jurisdictions could be considered --- as they used to say about Microsoft software --- a feature, not a bug. Like school districts, towns and counties have an emotional hold on residents, which makes consolidating districts hard but, as we see with schools, not impossible. Unlike school districts, towns and counties also embody notions of personal liberty and sovereignty. The myth, at least, is that small local jurisdictions are better at helping individuals represent their demands to the government. Until that notion is shaken --- formally and informally --- it will be hard to effect the type of administrative consolidation in election administration that would be a no-brainer in any other area of public service provision.

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