With Alabamians visiting the polls no fewer than four times this year, to vote on everything from local school boards to the president of the United States, the cost to organize and manage those elections quickly adds up.
Meanwhile, state legislators are arguing how to save money during a very lean budget year. Some experts say holding more elections on the same day and same ballot could possibly cut costs, but the logistics of accomplishing such a feat would be difficult if not impossible.
“Yeah, if you had fewer elections it would be cheaper,” said Bill Newton, assistant finance director for the Alabama Department of Finance. “But if you were to change the date of elections, you’d have to change the times of when some people take office. I don’t know how you’d do that.”
Newton said elections in the state are a costly practice that have only increased in price over the years. Newton said Alabama spent $4.7 million on elections in 2011 and expects to spend between $4 million and $6 million on elections this year, not including the November elections, which will be part of the state’s 2012-2013 fiscal budget. To date, the state has spent $93,000 to reimburse counties for elections this year. Under Alabama’s election system, the state’s 67 counties handle state elections and are then reimbursed by the state. Municipalities must pay for their own elections. Most cities and towns in Alabama will hold elections Aug. 28. Candidates can qualify to run between July 3 and July 17.
Newton said much of the cost for modern elections comes from supplies, which includes ballots and machines.
“Approximately half of the cost of a statewide election is from supplies,” Newton said.
He added that supplies are the reason elections are increasing in costs.
“They are gradually getting somewhat more expensive,” Newton said.
Unlike counties, municipalities don’t have the luxury of being reimbursed by the state for elections. Anniston City Clerk Alan Atkinson agreed with Newton that supplies account for the bulk of election costs.
“Every year the cost of supplies goes up,” Atkinson said.
This year, Atkinson has between $40,000 and $45,000 budgeted to spend on elections. He said poll workers are also not cheap.
“We have 10 polling places with six people per polling place, so that’s 60 people at $100 apiece on election day and then the same thing for a runoff,” Atkinson said. “That’s $12,000 right there and that’s probably a low estimate. Some polling places can have more than six workers; it just depends on the volume and the number of machines.”
The city of Oxford expects election costs similar to those in Anniston. Oxford City Clerk Shirley Henson said she’d budgeted $45,000 for municipal elections this year — a cost that includes possible runoffs. Henson said the number of polling places makes a big difference in the final cost of an election. Oxford has five polling locations.
“It makes a big difference … more polling places means you have to order more supplies and hire more people,” Henson said.
Jacksonville City Clerk Dot Wilson said she already expects the city will spend more on elections this year than the $11,000 she had already budgeted.
“Since last month the cost of supplies has gone up quite a bit, so we may end up spending up to $17,000,” Wilson said.
If municipal and state elections were held on the same day so fewer ballots and poll workers were needed or if organization of elections was more centralized, then the total cost of those elections might decrease, some experts say. Michael O’Sullivan, spokesman for the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, said more centralization of election management is already saving cities money in his state.
“Like in Alabama, the counties in Georgia are running the elections in most regards,” O’Sullivan said. “Many municipalities contract with the counties and just let them run their elections. Some cities find that is cheaper for them.”
Shaun Bowler, a professor of political science who studies elections at the University of California Riverside, said as far he knows, most states organize their elections like Alabama. He said there are several disadvantages to having decentralized elections spread out among counties and municipalities.
“The downside of decentralization is unevenness in how voting laws get administered even when they are the same laws,” Bowler said. “And there are political consequences of unevenness … some unevenness may not be related to any bad faith, just plain mistakes and amateurism in some smaller communities.”
Still, the benefits of decentralized elections make them worth keeping, Bowler said.
“In the end though, local control of elections is a good thing,” Bowler said. “Having members of our own community and maybe even friends and neighbors play a key role in elections really helps underscore that they are our elections.”
While holding more elections on the same day and on the same ballot to cut supply costs might work, setting up a system would be exceedingly difficult, said Lori Lein, general counsel for the Alabama League of Municipalities.
“There is no practical way to do it because of the way district lines are drawn,” Lein said.
For instance, combining county and city elections onto one ballot would cause confusion for some, Lein said. She said a polling place for a city election might also be a polling place for county residents. However, the county residents might not live in the city limits to vote in the city election.
“It would be a logistics nightmare,” Lein said. “And you may not save much money because you’d have to print extra ballots anyway.”
Atkinson said reorganizing elections to possibly make them cheaper might be possible but extremely difficult. Like Lein, he said the different district lines would pose a serious problem.
“For city elections, some people don’t vote in the same place as they do for state elections,” Atkinson said. “It would be very tricky to fix the ballot to know where you are voting for city and for county commissioner.”
He added that there are different laws for municipal elections and state elections that would need to be addressed.
“There is no need for party affiliation with city elections … and there are some other quirky laws,” Atkinson said.
Wilson agreed with Atkinson that the differences in election laws would make reorganizing elections problematic. Wilson said she did not know if rearranging state and municipal elections could save money, but she hopes such changes do not occur.
“It’s hard enough to keep up with elections as it is,” Wilson said with a laugh.
Atkinson had a similar concern.
“We’re just worried about ours,” he said. “You just want everything to run smoothly.”
Star staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star