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Cost of Voter ID: What We Know, and What We Don't

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[Image courtesy of Hispanically Speaking News]

[Yesterday's electionlineWeekly featured this article by Todd Haggerty and Wendy Underhill of the National Conference of State Legislatures - DMCj]

Last year, electionline ran an article entitled, "Debate Over Photo ID at the Polls Shifts to Costs." Since then, voter ID -- the issue of how voters are identified at the polls -- has only gotten hotter.

Recently, Pennsylvania enacted photo ID legislation, Minnesota's legislature put a constitutional amendment about photo ID on the November ballot, and Virginia sent a bill to the governor, to which he proposed changes.

See the National Conference of State Legislature's Voter ID: State Requirements webpage or last week's Electionline Weekly for the status of voter ID legislation around the country.

This year, cost concerns seem to be buried beneath the partisan debate. And yet money always matters, so the question remains: how much does it cost to implement a photo voter ID requirement?

No one knows for sure. There are before-the-fact estimates, and after-the-fact "actuals," but none are cut and dried. The truth is that the cost of voter ID -- like the cost of virtually everything election-related -- is hard to estimate, or to measure.  

For now, we can offer a look at legislative estimates and "boots on the ground" details from states that are in the process of implementing last year's new photo ID laws, and perhaps explain why these numbers are so difficult to pin down.

Estimates of Fiscal Impacts
The fiscal impact of legislation is usually demonstrated by a fiscal note. Fiscal notes are used by legislators to decide whether or not a proposed bill has merit, to revise a bill or make it less costly or raise more revenues, or to make decisions about the state's budget or revenues.

In some states fiscal notes are prepared by executive branch agencies affected by bills while in other states fiscal notes are prepared by the legislative fiscal staff. No matter who prepares the fiscal note they are an important -- and often contentious -- part of the legislative process.

In 2012, cost estimates for voter ID laws range from "no fiscal impact" in Nebraska and Virginia to "unknown greater than $7,027,921" in Missouri for the first year of implementation. [Ed. Note: NCSL is working on putting a full list of voter ID fiscal notes on its website. As soon as that link becomes available, we will update this story.]

The variation can be explained in part by differences in the legislation--what IDs are accepted, and whether there is another mechanism, such as absentee voting, that won't require an ID.

More significant are which factors states have included in their analyses. Some considered the cost of producing photo IDs for those people who don't have them, the cost of voter education campaigns, and the cost of retraining the election workforce to apply the new rules. Some states included a revenue drop because state IDs that had been revenue-generators would be provided for free.

Actual Fiscal Impacts
As for actual expenses, we looked to Kansas and Wisconsin, both of which passed strict photo ID bills last year. Kansas is going full-speed ahead in implementing the new rules in small, local elections, ironing out any kinks before the big November election.

Kansas has created a significant voter education campaign, including a simple-to-understand webpage, Got Voter ID? In fact, voter education -- TV, radio, print, etc. -- is by far the largest part of Kansas's expenses, according to Brad Bryant, state election director.

Voter education will cost $300,000, whereas printing new voter registration forms, buying scanning equipment for counties that do not have it, programming costs, and training add up to just $41,500. Bryant reports that the department of motor vehicles expects to absorb the costs of free IDs within its existing budget.

In Wisconsin, the situation is a bit more complex. In March 2012, two state court cases put a stop to further implementation of Wisconsin's voter ID law, and that makes getting firm numbers difficult.

What we do know is that the Government Accountability Board, which oversees Wisconsin's elections, had an appropriation of $1.8 million to be used over two years (2012 and 2013) to implement the new voter ID requirements. Much of the GAB appropriation was intended for voter education and trainingfor local election officials and poll workers, but is also covers changes to the state's election management system to track information related to the new law.

The GAB funds do not include any costs that the motor vehicle bureau may experience in creating IDs, or for loss of revenue for those IDs. In Wisconsin's fiscal notes from last year, the loss of revenue from free IDs was estimated at $2,736,832.

Local Perspectives
Those are state perspectives; what about local jurisdictions? Not all states address local costs in their fiscal notes. Maryland does, and the fiscal note for HB 705 puts the local price tag at $830,800. Two other states that address local costs, New Hampshire and Ohio, expect no additional local costs.

NCSL asked a couple of administrators who are implementing voter ID for the first time this year what they are expecting. We started in Virginia, where the new voter ID law on the governor's desk is more flexible than many; it permits identification of a voter by a poll worker, and will accept some forms of non-photo IDs.

Cameron Quinn, general registrar for Fairfax County, Va., said, "The state will need to design a new form, and all of us who train officials and poll workers will have to train a bit differently. But from the local perspective, a slightly different piece of paper is immaterial, and tweaking the training is immaterial, too, because we always have to revamp the program somewhat. In terms of costs, it nets to zero."

Jamie Shew, the county clerk in Douglas County, Kan., had a different perspective.   He just ran his first election under Kansas' new voter ID law, with a turnout of 86 voters, and it went off well.

For this minor election, he sent a mailing to all affected voters. He says this kind of voter information "is a policy choice," and that "luckily I had county commissioners who agreed" that he should proceed to mail to all 80,000 registered voters prior to the state's summer primary. By mailing to households--not individual voters--the cost will be kept to between $35,000 and $40,000.

Shew is also spending between $8,000 and $10,000 to replace 10,000 advance ballot envelopes (that's Kansas-speak for absentee voting) that had to be thrown out because the instructions were no longer accurate. He's doing the same with registration applications; they have to be reprinted to include the right instructions for voter ID.

And, he's budgeted for one more poll worker per polling site, at least through the first major election. This new poll worker can answer questions and keep the waiting lines short. The cost: $85 per poll worker, with 65 sites: $5,525.

He's appreciative of the state's macro-level education efforts but he says that counties do the micro-level outreach of staffing booths, going to public meetings and answering the phone when questions come up.

The bottom line for Shew isn't that voter ID "costs too much;" it is that "all policy changes have associated costs, and what seems incidental to the state is not incidental at the local level."

Thanks to Todd, Wendy and everyone at NCSL for their continued work on this issue!

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