Story Jump-Start: Covering Election Costs

by March 7, 2018

Special elections are big news for political reporters, but any election offers different angles for reporters covering money. (Photo via Flickr user justgrimes)

With the close presidential election in 2016 and races in divided national and state legislatures, special elections have garnered extra attention over the last year. Recently, a special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District has grabbed the national spotlight as Republican’s try to keep a district President Trump won handily in the last presidential race.

While the focus is primarily on politics, one angle business journalists can pursue is the official costs that come with elections. Here are some ideas and resources to help start your coverage.

What does it cost?

Elections are all different, so the cost of running an election and possible recounts can vary. The main cost usually comes from paying election officials, ballots and other election materials.

Printing ballots can cost between $.35 to $.65 per ballot and there are a number of election day officials that get paid, which vary by county. Some states provide materials for local jurisdictions and some don’t.

A Pew Research study found that in 2004 and 2008 Washington and Minnesota spent $.15 to $.30 per recounted ballot on two different statewide election recounts.

Who pays?

Depending on which state you’re in and the kind of election, funding can come from state, county or municipal governments. For example, in Arizona, the state generally only pays for presidential primary elections. States like Kentucky and Rhode Island pay a portion of all elections, whether they are statewide, or small local elections. There are a variety of provisions for all states in between.

On November election days when multiple seats are up for election, the cost is usually shared within the state, counties and municipalities. When election years come around, it can be helpful to know who bears the cost, especially since the cost of them reach into the billions nationwide.

What if there’s a recount? 

After the votes are in, some states have laws that require an automatic recount if the top two candidates are within a margin of victory. The National Conference of State Legislatures lists the codes and statutes that govern automatic recount criteria for each state.

For states that do not do automatic recounts, a candidate, voters, or a concerned party can petition for a recount. If the petitioner’s recount does not change the results, they will be responsible for paying for the recount.

Citizens for Election Integrity shows a breakdown of all election recount circumstances for each state. Depending on the size of the election, the cost could be thousands or even millions of dollars.

What about post-election audits?

After certain elections, some states conduct audits to certify that results are correct. Risk limiting post-election audits are increasingly becoming common practice to boost confidence that results are correct.

For most elections, initial recounts are subject to certain criteria. However, to save money, the NCLS says post-election audits can eliminate the need for recounts altogether. If everything looks fine, states can save money and time. Not all states have laws that require risk-limiting audits.

Cyber security concerns in the future may make risk-limiting audits more common. For example, NPR explained how Colorado used a first of its kind audit method developed by a University of California Berkley professor.