Higher Cost-Per-Vote Elections Apparently Not a Problem

Despite the higher cost per vote and lower voter turnout in odd-numbered year elections, there is little or no interest in Tulare County in moving elections to coincide with state and national elections.

The state election code gives districts the power to change the date of their elections. This was to help districts that had elections in odd-numbered years.

“Because of the cost, they allowed any board to move to an even-year election,” said Hiley Wallis, Tulare County election division manager. “They can move the election with a bigger group and make it cheaper.”

Voters in most of Tulare County went to the polls on November 5 to elect a variety of local officials, but this being an odd-numbered year, less than 18% of eligible voters in the county cast a ballot.

There were 124 votes cast in last month’s Earlimart Public Utility District election, 121 in the election for Alpaugh Irrigation District Director and only 91 in the Lower Tule River Irrigation District. This can result in an expensive cost per vote, with as much as $25 or more per vote cast, when ballots only have one contest listed.

Local districts had significantly smaller vote counts than they would have if their elections were in even-numbered years, when many more voters come out to cast votes in state and national elections. Usually, however, this is not a problem.

“For the bulk of these districts, they usually don’t get to an election,” explained Wallis. “If there’s more than one person that declares they want to run, then there’s an election.”

“There’s a cost to having a precinct and for ballots, and to get our office ready,” said Rita Woodard, Tulare County registrar of voters.

“We spread the cost based on voter registration,” said Wallis, adding that the cost is divided by how many elections and ballot measures there are on the ballot.

“You might have a memorial district, a school board and a city election,” said Woodard.
The math involved in determining what boards, candidates and government bodies can be staggering.

“I try to make it as equitable as possible,” said Wallis, before explaining how costs are determined. “If there are 10 districts on the ballot, you would get charged one-tenth of the cost.

That would be simple, if there were only a few different ballots, but district boundaries overlap, making cost assessment a complex puzzle.

“The cost of the election varies every time because of how many contests end up on a ballot,” she continued. “Just because it costs a district $2,000, next time depending on what else is on the ballot, it could go up or down. If you move to a state ballot (even-numbered years), you split the cost.”

The November 8, 2011 Dinuba Unified School District election cost almost $25 per vote cast. The Cutler Public Utility District election the same day cost almost $26 per vote. The Visalia City Council elections that day seemed a bargain by comparison at only $10.36 per vote cast.

By contrast, the Tulare County Board of Education election held on November 6, 2012, the same time as a wide range of state and national candidates, only cost $1.63 per vote cast. And the Pixley Public Utility District election that day cost $2.02 per vote.

In addition to being less expensive, even-year elections attract more voters. The November 2012 election district average was more than 60% of eligible voters casting ballots, with some district contests attracting over 80%. The election the year before attracted an average of less than 40% of voters, with four districts having fewer than 15% of their voters participate.

So it seems that election districts in Tulare County could save a lot of money and have a better voter turnout by switching their elections to even-numbered years.

“It’s not really that expensive,” said Rachel Garcia, general manager of the Earlimart Public Utility District, as well as secretary and clerk of the South Tulare County Memorial District.

She explained that the public utility district didn’t intend to be the only district on the ballot sent out to Earlimart voters. “The South Tulare County Memorial District also had three incumbents up for re-election, but nobody ran against them. Two (Earlimart Public Utility District) directors also ran unopposed.”

But is there any concern that only 124 votes were cast in Earlimart?

“I don’t think it matters,” said Garcia.

“It doesn’t really make a difference for us,” echoed Dan Vink, general manager of the Lower Tule River Irrigation District, who used the word “nominal” to describe the cost of the November 5th election. “It’s not something that shows up significantly in our budget.”

“It wasn’t much at all,” said Heather Barajas, administrative assistant at the Alpaugh Community Service District, who made our small sampling unanimous. “I would say less than $200.”

Barajas didn’t think the board would have any interest in switching its elections to even-numbered years. “There’s not a lot of expense that we incur either way,” she said.

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