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Saving Dollars, Saving Democracy
Following the historic 2008 election, one lesson has been well learned:
The success of any election is utterly dependent on the resources and skills of our local and state-level election officials.
The practices of local election administrators ultimately determine who is registered to vote and who is not, come Election Day. Election administrators are responsible for making the statutory requirement of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) a reality in their county. They deal with the local-level hurdles, funding issues, and challenges inherent in attempting to register eligible citizens in their jurisdiction. Officials accept the registration forms from public assistance agencies and Departments of Motor Vehicles, they administer data entry when third party groups and the Republican and Democratic parties submit forms, and they are responsible for sending accurate voter information to the state database. The strong turnout of 2008 was only possible because millions of new voters were added to the rolls. This surge in voter registration occurred both as a result of extraordinary registration efforts by partisan campaigns, independent expenditure groups and non-partisan organizations, and because of the diligence of local officials in data-entering their information. While there is much to celebrate in the expanded participation of traditionally underrepresented groups – for example, 3.4 million more young voters than the previous election – it is also important to recognize the enormous obstacles and cost inefficiencies that occur in our current registration system.
Millions spent U.S.PIRG Education Fund’s survey of 100 counties showed that over $33,467,910.00 of public money was spent on simple registration implementation and error-correction issues in 2008. That boils down to more than $86,977.00 of the elections budgets in counties with populations under 50,000. The average office in counties with 50,000 to 200,000 people spent $248,091.00. The average county elections office in jurisdictions of 200,000 to around one million people1 spent $1,079,610.00. Some of the largest counties in our survey spent far more than this average, for example St Louis County, with a population of 995,118, conservatively spent over 3 million dollars on registration implementation and issues in the 2008 cycle.
Additionally, these significant sums only reflect a portion of the costs election officials spend administering our outdated registration system.
Overtime pay, systems design costs, and outreach to citizens for registration are other significant costs not reflected in the already substantial money amounts uncovered by the report. Moreover, our antiquated system has numerous ancillary effects on every piece of the election process which lead to further costs. One example of this can be seen in one of the largest counties in the country, Los Angeles County, California. In Los Angeles County due to the large population, the delay in entering information into the database system leads to an expense of over $56,000 in every major countywide election just to mail supplemental voter rosters to poll inspectors overnight. 2 Election officials from coast to coast tell similar stories of being forced to apply inefficient, expensive band-aids in order to effectively administer the system.
Election officials must spend taxpayer dollars to deal with the errors and challenges of our paper-driven, inefficient registration system. If we modernized our system, election officials could instead use their budget for activities that promote our democracy, such as training poll-workers and election education, as well as on more effectively administering Election Day.
Other registration issues:
In addition to the time spent by current staff simply implementing the paper registration system, some of the extra registration issues that local administrators face are:
• Missing Information: inaccurate, incomplete, duplicated, or illegible forms;
• Citizen Confusion: a lack of clarity for any particular registrant concerning citizenship status;
• Overtime/Staffing: there are many problems and costs associated with hiring part-time staff or paying overtime to data-entry floods of forms in time for Election Day;
• Acknowledgment Cards: some states require a card be sent to registrants to confirm registration details;
• Reaching voters in rural areas: states face challenges when reaching out to register eligible citizens across a geographically complex rural jurisdiction; and
• Provisional ballot printings, mailings, and outreach: once a registrant is not accurately entered, HAVA requires that they be allowed to cast a day-ofelection provisional ballot. States must provide said ballot, and then in order for it to count, states need to follow up with the voter and state to determine their registration status.
U.S.PIRG Education Fund finds that a more streamlined and automatic system linking existing databases with the state voter rolls could free up significant resources at the local level. Thanks to the Help America Vote Act, we have already seen technological change in the initial creation of the mandated state database voter rolls.
By creating a more automatic system, the majority of the cost burden currently facing election officials due to registration could be eliminated.
Under an automatic and permanent voter registration system, local officials could focus their time and resources on administering elections and engaging citizens, not on the cost and complexity of today’s paper-driven registration process.
1. A federal mandate should be passed to require affirmative and automatic registration. Specified and privacyprotected data transfers and information sharing should occur from federal and state databases to the state voter rolls as a means of continuously updating the list. By eliminating the data entry and duplicate and error verification follow-up responsibilities of local officials, there will be large cost savings at the county level.
2. Federal funding should be provided to make it possible for states to implement this mandate.
3. States should also use specified private database transfers or information sharing to keep citizens on the rolls permanently at their most up-to-date address.
4. States should perform same-day balloting as a catch-all for citizens who may have been missed in the automatic and permanent systems.
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