10 Hidden Ways Elections Cost Americans Big Time
By Andrew Lisa
There is no shortage of reporting on the vast amounts of money candidates raise and spend during campaigns, including the enormous sums poured into elections by corporations, unions, special interest groups, and wealthy donors. But another, less heavily publicized source of spending is taxpayer money. Here are 10 things the average person may not know their hard-earned dollars are buying.
Related: Who Is the Most Frugal Presidential Candidate?
Plenty of people sport "I Voted" stickers proudly after returning from their polling place on Election Day. There is no harm in showing pride for performing a civic duty, but those stickers aren't free -- they cost about 15 cents each. While there are no records on how many state and municipal governments use them, if one were given to each of America's 200 million registered voters, taxpayers would dole out about $30 million. In the 2012 election, California's Santa Clara County saved taxpayers $90,750 just by leaving the stickers out of mail-in ballots, according to a local NBC news report.
From smoked bison and lobster to Champagne and caviar, inaugurations are expensive affairs, tending to keep pace with the rate of inflation: President George W. Bush's 2005 inauguration cost roughly $158 million. President Barack Obama's first inauguration, in 2009, cost $170 million. His second, in 2013, cost about $180 million, Slate estimated. Presidents and their parties are responsible for raising money for the bashes, but taxpayers are on the hook for the cost of such things as security and transportation, which can account for much of the overall expense -- about $124 million for Obama's first.
The pageantry of major party nominating conventions almost rivals the extravagance of inaugurations, but since a recent act of Congress, paying for them is up to the political parties -- except, that is, for an evenly divided $100 million in security costs. It makes for a barrage of influence-peddling accusations as the parties cozy up to deep-pocketed donors to finance the galas in exchange for access to movers and shakers. The latest Republican convention in Cleveland cost $71 million, compared with $65 million for the Democrats in Philadelphia -- without the taxpayers' security bill.
With elections come lawsuits, and taxpayers pay to bring them and defend against them. The state of Texas spent five years and $3.5 million in taxpayer money defending voter ID laws that were ultimately struck down. That bill soars to more than $8 million when including suits challenging redistricting efforts by the same Texas legislature. Virginia spent $3.7 million to fight three redistricting lawsuits and a voter ID challenge of its own. A local election for tax commissioner that challenged ballot labeling in DeKalb, Georgia, required taxpayers to pony up $300 an hour in fees for two lawyers, who would collectively bill the municipality $4,800 per eight-hour workday.
Primary elections collectively cost state taxpayers more than $400 million in 2012, according to the nonpartisan Independent Voter Project group, and much of that total was spent on "closed" primaries, in which only registered party members can participate. But all citizens share the cost equally, meaning some 26.3 million voters don't participate in elections they pay for.
Voter purges are among the most controversial pitfalls of modern elections, and that can make them costly. Like voter ID laws, voter purges tend to be initiated by Republicans sounding the alarm about fraud, with Democrats and others calling them disenfranchisement without evidence. (Claims of a Brooklyn voter purge being used to hobble Bernie Sanders' run for president shows Democrats aren't immune, though.) After the expense of the initial effort -- Florida Gov. Rick Scott spent about $52,000 on a purge in 2012, PolitiFact found -- come lawsuits such as one filed in Ohio after the removal of 2 million voters over five years. No matter who wins, lawsuits are expensive, as so is the cost of reinstating people taken off the rolls if a suit is lost.
Close elections are often contested in recounts, and taxpayers pay handsomely to ensure the true will of the voters is enforced. The most controversial and consequential recount in modern political history -- the 2000 Florida recount between presidential hopefuls George W. Bush and Al Gore -- was also one of the most expensive: $25,000 a day in Palm Beach County alone, county officials said. But even the price of lesser-known recounts can add up quickly. A Pew report estimates that a 2004 gubernatorial recount in Washington state cost taxpayers more than $1.16 million.
Results of the chaotic 2000 presidential election in Florida were up in the air for weeks, introducing the phrase "hanging chad" to the lexicon as shorthand for an unreliable voting system. Precincts quickly invested in new voting machine technology, but by now it's aging or obsolete. Millions of Americans will vote this year using machines that may have been built before the debut of Myspace. Replacements will be expensive: an estimated $2,500 and $3,000 for each new electronic voting machine, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. An alternative is optical scanners that read paper ballots. They have a higher upfront cost of $2,500 to $5,000, but each polling station may need only one.
Starting with the Civil Rights era in the 1960s and continuing through the 1990s and 2000s, the federal government instituted a series of laws compelling states to make it easier to cast a ballot. In 1993, a "motor voter" law required motor vehicle departments to offer voter registration, and a 2002 Help America Vote Act required states to consolidate and centralize registration databases. There is no uniform system of calculating how much each law has cost each state, but one thing is certain: The taxpayer foots the bill.
Sometimes voters decide they don't want to wait until the next election to throw an official out of office, and a recall vote is taken. Recalls are divisive, unpredictable, and thankfully rare -- but they are always expensive. The failed 2012 recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker cost the state more than $14 million. One of the most controversial recalls in history, which replaced Gray Davis with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the governor of California in 2003, cost a staggering $66 million.