Fiscal Analysis of Ranked Choice Voting in Washington
How Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is implemented and the existing election infrastructure have large impacts on the fiscal efficiency of RCV elections. The primary fiscal advantage of RCV is the elimination of an election for a jurisdiction. The cost of RCV can be divided into two parts: one-time capital expenses associated with acquiring software and hardware to count the votes plus the ongoing costs of running each election.
The capital costs associated with acquiring equipment and software are best defrayed by multiple uses of the software by the same election departments. Multiple uses allows jurisdictions to obtain the savings benefits without incurring additional capital costs. The best implementations will be in situations where multiple jurisdictions can eliminate elections through multiple uses of the capital investments.
Elections cost money to run. Eliminating an election saves money.
In California, local jurisdictions require run-off elections when no candidate receives a majority of the votes. Before adopting RCV, San Francisco was frequently forced to run runoff elections in December at considerable expense to taxpayers. With adoption of RCV, San Francisco has eliminated the need for runoff elections and consequently saves significant money in each annual election cycle. Los Angeles is contemplating converting for some of the same reasons.
In North Carolina, Cary, a city of more than 100,000, used RCV in 2007, eliminating the need for a runoff. The added voter education and election administration costs for RCV were outweighed by the savings from not holding a runoff by a ratio of more than three-to-one.
In Washington, the Top Two amounts to an "automatic runoff" system -- we always have two rounds of voting no matter how many candidates run, with a preliminary election in August and a November runoff between the top two. Cost savings from RCV comes from the elimination of the preliminary election in August and folding it into the November vote.
In Pierce County in 2008 where RCV was implemented for county level officials, the elimination of the preliminary round for county level officials did not do away with the cost of administering that election since the county must pay for the federal and state level primary elections in even-numbered years -- not fair to the county, perhaps, but a current fact of life. As a result, Pierce County did not receive any taxpayer savings from its implementation in 2008, although it did sharply reduce the costs for candidates running for office.
In 2009, Pierce County will be holding elections for local jurisdictions (e.g. city councils, school boards, port commissions, park commissions, and fire commissions). In addition, it will be holding a RCV election for the Pierce County Auditor position. In odd years such as 2009, local jurisdictions pay for their own elections, not the county. The county only pays for those elections it holds.
In 2007, the Port of Tacoma (a countywide jurisdiction) incurred election expenses of over $325,000 for just the August primary. A primary election for Auditor would cost the county a similar amount of money in 2009. Since Pierce County will be using RCV to elect its Auditor, this will be a 2009 cost savings for the county as compared to standard election procedure.
Several charter counties (e.g. King, Snohomish and Whatcom) in Washington regularly hold their county level elections in odd-numbered years. These counties would get these cost savings every two years if they implemented RCV for their county level officials. Pierce County has charter amendments on the 2009 ballot to shift county level elections to odd years. This would have the impact of saving money on these elections on a regular basis.
One-time Capital Expenses
In 2008, Pierce County invested in upgrades to its elections software and hardware to implement RCV and generally speed up all elections processing. Whenever making an investment in software, the first use is always the most expensive. Subsequent uses and multiple uses at the same time help spread out the costs.
To see how this would work, let us consider a possible scenario in Pierce County for 2009. Suppose in addition to Pierce County using RCV to elect its Auditor, the Port of Tacoma and the Metro Park District of Tacoma used RCV to elect their Commissioners. In 2007, the Port District and the Park District combined to spend over $400,000 on the August primary election. The Port and Park Districts would save this money in this scenario. In the general election, the Elections Department would not need to buy another piece of software or hardware to run these RCV elections. Thus, the benefits of the investment would be spread to a larger group of jurisdictions.
For King, Snohomish and Whatcom counties, they would have this benefit every two years for any local jurisdiction choosing to use RCV. For these counties, using RCV for both county level officials and local level officials would have the cost benefit of eliminating an election by taking advantage of the county's investment.
Expenses in each Election Cycle
While in 2008 in Pierce County the majority of the expenses were one-time investments, there were still some costs which will be incurred each time you run a RCV election. These expenses are almost exclusively tied to the desire of the Secretary of State and the vendor to have the RCV elections on a separate ballot card from other elections. Since in most election cycles, Pierce County has been able to get all of the races and ballot measures on one ballot card, this separate ballot card requirement meant an increase in printing, paper and postage costs for our mail-in ballots.
With only one RCV election on the ballot this November, it is ludicrous to suggest that it should be on a separate ballot when it comes with extra costs. The County Auditor's office has done a poor job in negotiating its contract if it cannot resolve this question.
The Pierce County Elections Department should be pressuring the vendor to eliminate this separate ballot card requirement as a way to save money. Other counties in Washington considering implementing RCV should make sure discuss this issue with their vendor before buying software for RCV.
Still there are ways to save money on this expense. Let's go back to our 2009 scenario where Pierce County is electing its Auditor, and the Port of Tacoma and the Metro Parks District are electing their Commissioners using RCV. All of these races would fit on one RCV ballot card. No additional RCV expenses would need to be incurred. Plus the RCV expenses would be split three ways instead of totally being incurred by the County.
In the scenario above, each entity (County, Port and Park District) would have reduced costs versus the traditional election procedures. This comes about through leveraging the county's investment in software by the Port and Park Districts. This scenario shows what is possible in King, Snohomish and Whatcom Counties if they are to try implementing RCV in their county level elections.
Implementing in environments where an election is eliminated allows one to get the fiscal benefit of RCV. Implementing across multiple races across multiple election cycles allows the county to leverage its investment in software and hardware to benefit multiple jurisdictions. King, Snohomish and Whatcom counties have real potential to implement fiscally efficient RCV elections.