Pew Study Calculates the Real Cost of Voter Registration

Pew Study Calculates the Real Cost of Voter Registration

Oregon spent more than $9.7 million–or $4.51 per active registered voter–on its voter registration system during the 2008 election according to a new report released today by The Pew Center on the States.  Conducted with the assistance of Oregon state and local election officials, The Real Cost of Voter Registration is the first comprehensive analysis of its kind and provides a model for other states to estimate their expenses and establish a basis for evaluating efforts to modernize.

"States need to analyze their current voter registration costs before they can determine effective ways to modernize the process," said John Lindback, senior officer for Election Initiatives at the Pew Center on the States and former Oregon state election director. "Oregon's critical contribution to this study provides guidance for analyzing expenses and shows the need for a more cost-effective system.  A good starting point is to use 21st –century technology that will not only make registration less expensive, but also more efficient and accurate."

Innovative, cost-saving steps toward modernization have already been implemented by some states. For example, Delaware reduced its labor costs by $200,000 annually with its eSignature practice that requires every visitor to the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to register to vote, update their record or decline to do so and then electronically syncs the data with the state election office.   In Phoenix, Arizona, an online registration costs an average of 3 cents to process versus at least 83 cents for a paper registration form.

By comparison, Canada's system points to the potential for significantly greater savings via a list of eligible voters created in part from government data sources.  The Canadian system costs taxpayers about $5 million (CAD) annually or about 26 cents (USD) per registered voter compared to $4.51 in Oregon.

"Determining the exact cost of registering voters has been a real challenge," said Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, "because we found overlapping responsibilities at the state and local level. We've been pleased to work with Pew because this study gives us our first thorough look at the process and will certainly help other states evaluate their own registration procedures and costs.  We already have improvements on the way, with our online voter registration system coming in March.  We won't stop seeking opportunities to modernize our system in ways that reduce costs and better serve Oregon voters."

Pew worked with Oregon state election officials and 36 county clerks to isolate their voter registration expenses from other costs related to conducting elections for 2008.  The study's key findings include:

  • Oregon's voter registration system cost state and local governments more than $9.7 million;
  • The cost per active registered voter (individuals who have either voted or updated their registration during the past five years) was $4.51;
  • New registrations combined with updates resulted in 1,152,761 transactions and the cost per transaction was $8.43; and
  • The cost per active voter in the seven largest counties ($2.78) was less than that in the remaining 29 counties ($4.28), indicating economies of scale.

Variations in both state laws and the division of responsibilities between state and local election officials make it difficult to assess voter registration costs nationwide.  Two landmark pieces of federal legislation–the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993 and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002–also shifted some responsibilities for voter registration from local jurisdictions to states.  Additionally, HAVA's requirement that each state maintain a statewide voter registration list resulted in the re-allocation of costs between multiple levels of government.