Penny Pinching at the Polling Place

States are trying to save money on elections administration
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For the people who hold elections in West Virginia, the passing of U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd in June was upsetting in more ways than one. West Virginia had already held its primary election in May. So the special primary to pick candidates to run for Byrd's seat, scheduled for Saturday (August 28), represents an unanticipated expense for counties during a time of historic budget pressures.

"Every budget year, you have one election," says Jamie Six, the clerk of Wood County. "This time, we're going to have two elections. We'll have the special election, and then we'll have the November election. We're using our November dollars — our November budget — for the special election."

The state has appropriated $3 million to reimburse counties for the election, but costs could easily exceed that amount. According to the West Virginia Association of Counties, the May primary cost counties more than $5 million to administer.

Patti Hamilton, the association's executive director, has sent a letter to state legislators, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and Governor Joe Manchin (who is a candidate in the contest), requesting that they reimburse counties quickly for any expenses that exceed $3 million. "There was not a realization of how much it actually costs to put on a primary election," Hamilton says. "I think there was a wink and a nod that the state will cover all costs, but now all I have is a promise."

West Virginia's situation with the special primary is a bit unusual, but the concern about elections expenses is not. If 2010 is a big election year, it's also a terrible budget year. And that has elections officials across the country looking for all kinds of ways to control costs, while trying to minimize the impact on voters.

Precinct strategies

In Columbiana County, Ohio, for example, elections officials recently combined 10 precincts with larger precincts. In many cases, precincts are being consolidated with others that were housed at the same location, so voters who are accustomed to casting their ballots at a certain firehouse will still vote at the same firehouse.

Kim Meek, deputy director of the county board of elections, explains that each precinct costs $500 to operate — mostly, to pay poll workers — so in a year with both primary and general elections, savings from consolidating the locations of precincts can add up. "It's not just one election and we're over it," Meek says. "It's a total cost savings of $10,000 a year. If you go out 10 years, it's going to save us 10 times 10. It's a lot of money."

Early voting is another area being targeted for savings. In Arizona, counties mail out ballots to nearly 800,000 voters who have signed up for early voting — they do this 26 days before an election. But until a recent change, state law also required them to send sample ballots to all voters 11 days before an election. Sending those sample ballots to early voters wasted money and created problems. "It caused voter confusion, as well as cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars each cycle," says Tammy Patrick, Maricopa County's federal compliance officer.

Although allowing voters to cast ballots before Election Day is a convenience for voters and may save money overall in the long run, Grand Forks County, North Dakota, looked at cutting early voting completely in 2010. Auditor Debbie Nelson says the county spent about $15,000 on early voting in 2008 and it didn't result in a significant increase in turnout.

The county Democratic Party protested the plan to ditch early voting entirely, however. The county commission decided to continue it as a voting option. But to make it easier on Nelson's staff and reduce costs, the commission decided to hold early voting in the county office building. The move on-site is expected to save $3,600.

That may not sound like much, but in financially struggling small counties, any action that can produce even tiny amounts of savings is worth considering. In Seneca County, Ohio, members of the board of elections will vote next month on whether to renew their memberships with the Ohio Association of Election Officials. Letting the memberships expire would save $808.16.

Primary tactics

In West Virginia, counties are trying many of these maneuvers to control costs in Saturday's special election. The state shortened the early voting period to five days from the three weeks that preceded May's primary. A number of counties also are consolidating precinct locations. In Wood County, that strategy is allowing Jamie Six to hire 66 fewer poll workers than the 420 he usually needs.

Hosting an unexpected election, however, creates circumstances that are beyond anyone's control. For example, the reason West Virginia is holding the special election on a Saturday is because state law mandates that state offices close on election days; a Tuesday election would have shut down government, incurring a whole other set of costs. Yet in a handful of cases, election officials have found that schools and churches they normally use as polling places were already booked for August 28, necessitating a search for a new place to cast ballots.

In those situations, counties are required to send a notice to all registered voters in the precinct alerting them to the change, as well as another notice after the election explaining that the change was for one time only. So clerks work hard to clear up conflicts. In Mason County, Clerk Diana Cromley has only had to relocate one precinct for Saturday's primary; that polling place has been reserved for a family reunion. In Wood County, a football game at a junior high school and a hunting festival forced polling-place changes, but Six successfully persuaded organizers of a yard sale to make way for the election.

At the same time, some features of the special election may cost less than the May primary. For one thing, election officials can use some of the same poll workers they trained for the May election, so they do not need to hold additional training sessions. Ballot printing costs will be lower because only one race will be decided. And since turnout is expected to be low, some counties are planning on using fewer voting machines and sending out fewer technicians than normal on Election Day.

For the most part, county officials seem confident that the state will reimburse them for their special election costs. But the short turnaround time between Saturday's contest and the general election in November is a concern. "If we don't get the money for November, we'll be in trouble," says Vera McCormick, the clerk in Kanawha County, which includes Charleston.

Tennant, who as secretary of state is West Virginia's top official on administering elections, says counties have nothing to worry about. "We understand the constraints under which the counties are operating," says Jake Glance, Tennant's spokesman. And we "will work with them to make sure their needs are met under these special circumstances."