Election Costs, Used Cars, and Blue Books

kelly_blue“The bill is just a made-up number.  The true problem in health care is we don’t understand our costs. If you don’t know your costs, you can’t drive down health spending in this country.” ~ University of Utah Health Sciences Senior Vice President Vivian Lee (Salt Lake Tribune, December 16, 2013)

This quote might have easily been made about election costs.  Last week at the California Election Officials’ New Law Conference in Sacramento, it was announced that the Future of California Elections (FOCE) and the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO) received a generous grant from the Irving Foundation to study the cost of elections in California.  There were few details offered about the scope, purpose and objectives of the study and no details on either the FOCE website or the Irvine Foundation site which is probably because the grant was recently announced.

The cost of elections has long been an interest of mine.  I chaired the Washington State Auditors Association Task Force on Election Costs from 1999-2002.  I have defended billing practices from challenges by Elected Officials, Fiscal Officers and Financial Auditors.  I have developed, documented and implemented county election cost calculators and billing protocols for a half dozen jurisdictions.    I have written legislative proposals, academic papers and even recently blogged on the question of election costs- The Mystery of Election Costs.

It is this long-term interest in election costs that has triggered a myriad of questions about what is(are) the question(s) the research is intended to answer; from which point of view will the issue be considered; about whether policy proposals are intended to be a work product of the study.

How much does that election cost?  Sounds like a simple and straight forward question, right? Maybe if you are a member of the public, activist or a scholar. 

If you are a county legislator, administrator or budget person you are probably asking questions like:  How much was actually expended for the election?  How much in addition to previously appropriated funds were expended?  How much were local funds?  How much was offset by revenue?  What is the difference between current expenditures and expected reimbursement?

If you are the entity for whom the election was conducted you are asking:  How much are you charging me for this election?  What are the indirect costs you are charging me?  What is my cost per voter compared to the cost per voter of others or the past?  Why is it so much?

If you are someone concerned about the cost of elections with dreadfully low participation rates or someone seeking to sensationalize low turnout you would be asking:  What was the cost of each vote cast in the election?

This type of thing should not be very surprising to anyone who has asked, “What does that car cost?”  Everyone has heard of the “Kelly Blue Book”, the authoritative guide to pricing a car, but few know that there are different versions with different values depending on who you are and your reason for asking the question.  The consumer has one version for private sales which contains high and low values depending on the condition of the car.  Most consumers think this is the only book and everyone is working with the same information.  Not so.  Different versions of the Blue Book are closely held and contain different values based upon whether you are a dealer and reselling a car, a dealer taking a car in trade or an insurance agent calculating salvage or replacement value.  The cost of the exact same car, like an election, is calculated based upon the assumptions you make, your reason for asking and the capacity in which you ask the question.  The answer is never the same.

Any study of election costs which does not acknowledge these realities can save a lot of time and money and conclude right up front, like health care in the quote above, “The [cost] is just a made up number.”

Stay tuned.


4 thoughts on “Election Costs, Used Cars, and Blue Books

  1. Scott, you are no doubt familiar with the description “First World Problems” describing things that bother us in this world fairly hemorrhaging technologybut are not problems in much of the world.

    In a similar vein, may I suggest that this election cost idea is an example of a “West Coast Problem” primarily?

    My state, PA, takes a different tack. Municipalities and other governing bodies do not decide when their elections are, the state does. Except in Presidential years, all primaries, for all levels of public office of any kind, are on the third Tuesday in May. All November elections are as specified for Presidential ones. First Tuesday after…. All primaries in the Presidential year are the fourth Tuesday in April, that’s it. No multiple elections for multiple levels of government.

    There are two types of special elections; state or federal legislative vacancies, and special school budget excess tax increase referenda, which nearly never happen any more. For a legislative vacancy, the House Speaker or Senate President Pro Tempore decides the date, using an existing primary or general election date the vast majority of the time, and state statute specifies which costs are and are not reimbursable to the counties impacted.

    So in general, knowing election costs here is merely an academic exercise. Did I mention I am soooooo glad I’m not a Californian?


    1. Kurt;

      Inasmuch as you are referring to special elections, you are right although I wouldn’t necessarily use the term “first world problem.” I prefer the terms populist or democratic the describe the problem “how much is election going to cost me?”

      Even with set election dates and a fixed reimbursement formula, the actual cost of any election–in CA or PA– is elusive. For example, in PA what portion of the annual salary and benefits of permanent staff should be included in calculating the cost of a primary in an even year? What portion for the general? How do you account for the expense of supplies purchased in bulk in a previous fiscal year in the cost of an election. How is the cost of voting equipment and software factored into the cost of any given election? I can guarantee that there is no standardization anywhere in how these costs are calculated.

      These questions are common to all jurisdictions whether they are centralized and state controlled or if they are populist and decentralized.

      Btw, did I ever tell you that I was born in PA? but am proud to be a Californian?

      Scott O. Konopasek


      1. Scott, I agree that the calculation is elusive. What I am unsure of, even with 4 years as a county Election Director and Chief Voter Registrar, is why it matters. Est quod est. It is what it is. How costs are divided between a given year’s primary or general election is largely unimportant. There is no one to bill. The election costs are 99%+ fixed costs, whether 1 voter shows up or 200,000 do.


      2. In other words, all elections use the same number of precincts, machines, poll workers, in essence the exact same costs every year, whether spring or fall.


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