Economies of Scale in Election Expenditures

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Recent studies in California and Colorado have found that less populous counties have higher costs per registered voter. 

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.

In an earlier dispatch, we discussed research that found similar results in North Dakota.

So why are elections more expensive in smaller counties?

Sarah Hill and Allan Wallis, authors of the California and Colorado studies respectively, think the cost difference may be due to economies of scale. All counties have fixed costs associated with running elections. These costs include finding and setting up polling places or voting centers, purchasing and maintaining voting equipment, and hiring and training election workers.

Smaller counties have fewer voters to absorb the fixed costs than in a larger county, resulting in a higher average cost per voter.

Smaller counties may also face higher postage and machine repair costs, according to the researchers. While larger counties are able to negotiate bulk mail rates, less populous counties do not have the volume of mail to get a cheaper rate.

Small counties may also have higher maintenance costs since they are more likely to rely on vendors instead of paid staff for equipment repairs.