A Tale of Two Special Elections
Costing Out Louisiana and Massachusetts
Hundreds of special elections are held across the nation each year and because there is no way officials can plan for them, budgeting can be difficult. Below is an analysis of how two states, Louisiana and Massachusetts handle special elections.
A recent report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office calculated that special elections in the state, from 2005 to 2010, cost state and local governments more than $1 million with the direct costs of running these elections ranging between $12,000 and $137,000 a piece.
As already reported, a potential conclusion from this report is that Louisiana is spending unnecessary resources to hold special elections rather than postponing these races until the next regularly scheduled election days.
Legislation to reduce the number of standalone local elections has already been introduced by the state Legislature, but underneath the headline of the cost of each election is the story of how states and localities divvy up the costs of running those elections.
Louisiana’s Election Code — specifically sections 18:1400.1 through 18:1400.8 — deal with the reimbursement of counties and parishes who bear the costs of elections. The state, in essence, pays for half of all ballot and election materials so long as there is a statewide measure on the ballot. The remaining half is then prorated between the state and localities based on the number of offices that each level has on the ballot.
For example, if there is a gubernatorial special election — a statewide office — and no other ballot issues or races, the state pays for the whole cost of the ballot and election materials. If there is a municipal bond issue in a place like Baton Rouge, but nothing else on the ballot, the local election authority pays all the expenses.
If both the statewide special election and the municipal bond issue are on the ballot, the state would automatically pay for the first half of the ballot and then the state and the local election authority in Baton Rouge would apportion the remaining half based on the number of items on the ballot. Since this example has one state and one local, the state would pay for three quarters of all expenses and the municipality one-quarter.
Calculating the pro rata share of election costs from the parish up to the state would be extremely time consuming, mind numbing and complicated were it not for Louisiana’s advanced tracking and auditing system. Secretary of State Tom Schedler, says all election related expenses are run through the secretary of state’s office. Some expenses, such as hauling the voting machines or printing the ballots, are paid for directly by the secretary’s office. Other expenses are paid at the local level, by the parish clerk of court or the parish registrar, which they submit to the state for reimbursement.
All of this cost information is loaded into the Louisiana’s Election and Registration Information Network (ERIN), the state’s voter registration and canvassing system, which quickly breaks down the pro rata costs of the election for each election jurisdiction. Invoices are sent out and then each municipality is required by law to pay back their share as spelled out in the Louisiana Election Code (18:1400.6).
Calculating Cost Savings for Policy Change
Yet even given Louisiana’s excellent system, calculating the full range of the cost savings of the proposed policy change has proven to be difficult.
"We found that a special election policy change would result in changes to the cost-sharing arrangement for regular election days because of the additional state issues on the ballot,” said Bradley Bourgeois, senior auditor at the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office and one of the authors of the auditor’s report. “We therefore had to recalculate the cost shares for state and local government for our hypothetical cost-savings scenario. Even then we were not able to calculate the full extent of the cost-savings due to the uncertainty surrounding indirect costs."
Indirect costs, such as overtime pay, owed compensatory time, and mail costs are not included in the auditor’s analysis of the costs of special elections. Being more variable year after year, these are hard to calculate consistently, especially going back 6 years.
One counterfactual of Massachusetts election history is that the 2010 special election for the U.S. Senate would not have occurred had Chapter 236 – a 2004 amendment that removed power from the Governor to appoint an interim Senator – not gone into effect. There would have been no special election, and no costs to cities and towns and Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat would have been filled until the next regularly scheduled state election.
This story is well known and is often cited as a case-in-point tale of unintended consequences.
What is less well known is how the 2009/2010 special election that elected Scott Brown provided a unique opportunity for a decentralized state like Massachusetts to begin seriously assessing the cost of a statewide election.
Since the passage of the 1980 Local Mandate Law in Massachusetts – one component of the property tax limit initiative, Proposition 2 ½ - the state legislature has had to pay for any new unfunded mandates imposed on communities. Chapter 236 fit this criterion – and thus, the state was now obligated, by statute, to foot the bill for municipalities during a special election.
This task of determining the full cost of conducting the mandated special election for each city and town fell to the State Auditor’s Division of Local Mandates (DLM). The state had to both estimate the cost of the special election and reimburse its 351 municipalities accordingly.
However, prior to 2010, the auditor’s office had experience in calculating costs across elections. Since the passage of the Chapter 503 in 1983, the state mandated that polling places run for an additional three hours, to ensure uniformity across the state in non-local elections (7am-8pm). In accordance with the Local Mandate Law, the first three hours would be funded by the legislature, while municipalities funded the rest of the costs.
Because of the Uniform Polling Hours mandate, the auditor’s office had a 26-year history of collecting data to ‘cost out’ the first 3 hours of an election – every biennial election since 1984.
In collecting this data, they found several discernable trends. The first was a 5-6 percent increase in costs across elections. The second was that the cost of elections are primarily personnel driven, predictable year after year, since the number of polling places remains relatively constant.
Knowing these trends, the auditor’s office used this data to project the cost of the 2009/2010 special elections, by making an initial extrapolation of these 3-hour figures for a 13-hour day.
Their projection for the election was around $7.2 million; the actual cost was around $7.8 million.
DLM director, Emily Cousens, cautions, “for the most part, that relationship – extrapolation vs. actual cost – did not hold for specific cities and towns. This is at least partly because the elements of cost for a full election are more comprehensive than the items that factor into the cost of the uniform polling hours mandate.”
Nevertheless, the state auditor’s office provided a relatively close estimate; moreover, our own analysis demonstrated that spending was proportional to a town’s population for municipalities with a population of greater than five thousand. For smaller towns, spending was on average level.
The type of cost analysis conducted for the 2010 special election was completed under unusual circumstances, a somewhat haphazard byproduct of conflicting state mandates. That said, it is a welcome byproduct, and provides a unique glimpse at election costs that will never be calculated for a regular election.