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Summit County, OH Funding Debate Yields Rich Vein of Spending Data

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[Image courtesy of Mike's Blog at the UNC School of Government.]

Way back in August 2011, I wrote about a budget struggle in one Indiana county that raised questions about the impact of our country's continuing fiscal challenges on election administration.

The Indiana debate I described in August is heating up in Ohio, where Summit County (Akron) legislators and election officials are at loggerheads over a budget request of more than $9 million for the fiscal year that includes the 2012 presidential election - up from the $7 million it spent in 2008.

As part of that debate, the County Executive - himself a former elections board member - commissioned a study comparing Summit's election spending to that of its neighbors. On its face, the news is not good for the elections board. From a story in the Akron Beacon-Journal:

The report notes that Summit spent $4 million on full-time, part-time and overtime wages in 2008 to handle 280,841 voters. Montgomery and Lucas spent $2 million and $1.9 million to handle 279,031 and 220,457 voters, respectively.

There also was a wide disparity in the total hours worked by employees: 214,262 in Summit, 119,943 in Montgomery and 125,363 in Lucas.

The report -- more than an inch thick -- also notes the current administrative costs in Summit ($455,292) are more than double those in Montgomery ($222,081) and Lucas ($211,247). Summit employs more assistant directors, administrative assistants and executive secretaries than the other counties.

Based in part on this analysis, the Executive appears set to ask the county to fund the election board at a far lower level than they had requested.

The board disputes some of the findings, noting that unlike its neighbors who use electronic voting, Summit uses optical scan ballots and therefore must purchase ballots for each election. They also note that Summit has about 100 more precincts than either of the comparison counties - though the difference is partly due to those counties eliminating precincts to save money after the 2008 election.

The election board in Summit recently deadlocked on a similar precinct-reduction proposal, as well as on a proposal to stop giving full-time health benefits to its part-time pollworker coordinators. The Secretary of State will break both ties.

There is a silver lining of sorts - specifically, Summit's budget pain is election geeks' gain; cost data has long been the white whale of election research - and this data could be very helpful in teasing out the cost components of election administration. In Summit, however, the conversation between the election board and local legislators should go a long way toward surfacing assumptions about what constitutes desirable election policy - and deciding whether there is money in the budget to make it all happen.

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