Thursday, June 25, 2009

Opportunity to Save Hundreds of Thousands in Elections Costs

Deryl McCarty, Deputy Pierce County Auditor, has identified a method for saving Pierce County hundreds of thousands of budget dollars in the November election alone. McCarty has determined that a majority of ballots can have just one ballot card rather than the budgeted two ballot cards thus saving hundreds of thousands of dollars as compared to the budget.

In setting the budget, it was observed it was likely not all of the November races would fit onto one ballot card for some precincts. The budget was then set to use two ballot cards for ALL precincts. Through careful analysis, McCarty and others within the Elections Department determined that not all precincts would require the two ballot cards. Using only one ballot card for some precincts will save money on printing and postage for the ballots. This taking the initiative to save costs is welcomed by the taxpayers of the county and the county budgetmasters.

There is still work to be done to implement this cost savings. The Elections Department will need to keep on task to be able to implement this cost savings, but the county government needs to be focused on cost savings this year especially given the budget crunch. At a later date, we hope to report McCarty and crew have succeeded in implementing this cost savings measure.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Port-Only Primary for Many Voters

The Port of Tacoma will be holding the only countywide primary in Pierce County this August. 146 precincts in the county will receive a primary ballot with only Port Commission Position 1 with candidates Bernardo Tuma, Connie Bacon and Bill Casper on it. This represents 39% of all the precincts in Pierce County.

The 146 precincts had 131,367 registered voters in November 2008. This represented 32% of the total voters in the county.

The Pierce County Auditor race has three candidates (Julie Anderson, Will Baker, Jan Shabro) running, but no August election since the County will be using Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) for that election. If the Port was using RCV to elect its Commissioners, then these 131,367 voters would have had no primary ballot. The cost of the August primary would have appropriately lower.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pierce County and the Port of Tacoma

Last week, Pierce County had three candidates (Julie Anderson, Will Baker, and Jan Shabro) file to run for Auditor, but will save the expense of a primary. The Port of Tacoma, a countywide organization, had three candidates (Bernardo Tuma, Connie Bacon and Bill Casper) file to run for one of their Port Commission positions and will receive a bill for having a primary...probably around $350,000.

Pierce County is using Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) to elect its Auditor. RCV combines the primary and general elections into one election in November. Since the county itself will not participate in the primary, it will not receive a bill for the primary.

The Port of Tacoma has been forced to use a non-partisan Top 2 system to elect its Port Commissioners. Under this system, if more than two candidates file to run for one of the Commissioner positions, the Elections Department will run a primary for the Port and send them a bill for doing so. In 2007, the bill was $327,000. This year it should be slightly more due to fewer jurisdictions sharing the cost of the primary.

The non-partisan Top 2 system penalizes jurisdictions with more candidates and more civic involvement. This is a strange incentive system for political entities. RCV, on average, ends up with more candidates, but does not cost the entity more money for a primary. Using RCV would save the Port significant money which could be used to keep people on the payroll instead of having to lay off as many workers.

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Port and Tacoma Schools Should Ask for Cut in Election Expenses

The Port of Tacoma and the Tacoma School District should ask the Pierce County Auditor to use Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) to elect their Port Commissioners and School Board members this November and skip the August primary to save money for the workers and the kids. Without a change in elections procedures, the Port will be out about $350,000 and the Tacoma Schools will be billed about $100,000. This is money better spent on workers salaries and supporting kids education.

Pierce County itself will be using RCV to elect its new Auditor. So despite there being three candidates in the Auditor race, there will be no August election for the county. RCV folds the primary and general elections into one election in November. The Port Commissioner Position #1 has three candidates (Bernardo Tuma, Connie Bacon and Bill Casper) and the Tacoma School Board Position #2 has six candidates (Jerry Thorpe, Catherine Ushka-Hall, Connie Rickman, Amy Bates, Chris Van Vechten, and Deb Blakeslee).

Using the current set of rules, these races will require an election in August for these positions and the Port and School District will be sent bills for holding these elections. If the Port and the School District were to change to RCV, they would not participate in the August election and would not receive a bill for that election.

As soon as possible, the Port Commission and the School Board should petition the Auditor's office to use RCV to elect their officials this year. This would save the Port and School Board important dollars in this difficult financial year which has seen lay-offs throughout the county.

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Friday, June 05, 2009

More Lay-offs at the Port?

The game of filing week Top 2 roulette is over and the losers are the Port of Tacoma, the City of Tacoma and the Tacoma School District. The winners included the Metro Parks District and Pierce County itself. The losers had "too many candidates" sign up to run for a position on the Port Commission, the Civil Service Commission or the School Board. The winners had only one or two candidates fill for each of their positions OR are using Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) to elect their officials.

In the Top 2 election system used by most local jurisdictions, if more than two candidates sign up to run for a particular office, the corresponding jurisdiction must hold a primary and pay the associated bill. For example, three candidates signed up to run for Port Commissioner, Position 1, so the Port will receive a bill probably between $350,000 and $400,000 for the primary. The Port has to pay a big share of the total bill for the primary since it is a countywide district. If there had been one fewer candidate for this position, the Port's bill for the primary would have been $0.

The county itself will be using RCV to elect the Auditor position. Three candidates signed up to run for Auditor, but since RCV elections fold the primary into the general election, there will be no primary and the County's bill will be $0.

Facing this unforeseen bill, the Port Commission is likely to have to come up with additional lay-offs to cover the bill for the primary. This is quite unfortunate and could be prevented in the future by shifting the election of Commissioners to RCV.

All of this applies to the City of Tacoma and the Tacoma School District as well, but the scale of their problem is smaller. Their bills are more likely in the $80,000-100,000 range. Obviously, these are significant numbers in this day of tight budgets. The Metro Park District will have no primary, so they will not be affected by a bill for the primary.

The current Top 2 system for electing local officials causes districts to want fewer candidates vying for office in order to save money. Obviously, we should prefer systems which encourage more civic engagement, including more candidates running for office. The RCV system used by the county encourages more candidates without the additional cost of a primary. The Port should adopt RCV to elect its commissioners.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Novoselic and Anderson Announce Their Candidacies

Krist Novoselic and Julie Anderson announced their candidacies yesterday.

Novoselic, former bass player for Nirvana and current Chairman of Fairvote, is running for Wahkiahum County Clerk and "prefers Grange Party". Novoselic's candidacy appears to be a protest against the Top 2 system which prevents private associations from controlling the use of their name on the ballot. Novoselic is the Grangemaster of the Gray's River Grange and he has opposed the Grange's support of the Top 2 election system in the state of Washington. Part of the point of Novoselic's candidacy is the lack of ability of the Grange to control who signs up to represent their group on the ballot.

Novoselic prefers the ballot access system embedded in Pierce County's RCV charter provision. This system allows ready access for independents and third party candidates while allowing the parties and other groups to control who uses their name on the ballot.

Anderson, Deputy Mayor of Tacoma, has announced her candidacy for Pierce County Auditor. While the position is non-partisan, Anderson is a well known Democrat and will have the support of the Pierce County Democrats, but she will be working to get the support of others as well. The other candidate in the race so far is Jan Shabro, a well known Republican. Shabro was appointed to replace Pat McCarthy as Auditor earlier this year by the Republican dominated County Council. This should be an interesting race as both candidates are well known politicians in the county.

According to Anderson's website, "I’m running for Auditor because Pierce County deserves fair and practical leadership that is directly accountable to the voters – not political parties. There is no obstacle that cannot be overcome with the right mix of pragmatism, imagination and hard work. And there is no government that can function without an informed and engaged citizenry." She will be emphasizing her non-partisan public service as a member of the Tacoma City Council as compared to Shabro's partisan positions.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Whatcom County Opportunity to Save Money

Whatcom County would save significant costs by adopting Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) and folding the primary into the general election for its county level officials. Whatcom County's system of electing its county level officials in odd-numbered years is significant in obtaining more cost savings. Whatcom County should adopt RCV.

Much has been written and said about the costs of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in Pierce County, but little analysis has been done for Whatcom County elections and how they would be affected by the adoption of RCV for county level elections.

Whatcom County can take advantage of the experience in Pierce County, Washington as well as Aspen, Colorado to save money for its taxpayers. Plus Whatcom County has the advantage that it holds its county level elections during odd-numbered years.

To see how this would work, let's examine the last set of county level elections in Whatcom County. In the August 2007 primary election, 6 jurisdictions in Whatcom County held primaries for one office or another. The County had one County Council seat in the primary, while the City of Bellingham had a primary for the Mayor's race as well as two City Council seats. The bills received by the various jurisdictions are a function of the number of races requiring a primary in the Top 2 system.

The total cost of the election was about $238,600. The costs were allocated amongst the various jurisdictions and the county's bill was $47,866. If Whatcom County county level officials were elected using RCV in 2007, the county's bill for this election would have been $0 because there would have been no primary for county level elections. This would have been a savings of $47,866 for the county.

The amount of potential savings once every two years is a function of the convoluted Top 2 primary system we use. Primaries are held in the odd-numbered years for those races with three or more candidates. This means local jurisdictions incur costs in the primary when "too many candidates" file to run for office. The more offices with "too many candidates" the more the expense. So the City of Bellingham had three races with "too many candidates" so their bill for the August primary was higher than Whatcom County's bill. Potential candidates are placed in the position of costing taxpayers money by running for office and participating in our democracy.

RCV would eliminate this anomaly by folding the primary into the general election. Whatcom County voters would then be placed in the position of welcoming more candidates as more choices in November. The current Top 2 system makes filing week like Russian roulette for the taxpayers of the various jurisdictions. The voters are rooting for more choices and the taxpayers are rooting for no primary. It does not need to be this way. RCV solves this dilemma.

In 2008, Pierce County did not experience this cost savings since all counties in the state of Washington must pay for the federal and state level primaries held in their respective counties. These primaries only occur in even-numbered years. Thus, the county had to pay for the primary despite the fact that there were no county level races happening. Whatcom County is in a far different position than Pierce County in this respect. Interestingly, there are a couple of charter amendments on the Pierce County ballot this year to move county level elections in Pierce County to odd-numbered years similar to how King, Snohomish and Whatcom County handle their elections.

Pierce County spent a significant amount on software provided by its existing elections systems vendor. Pierce County used an extra ballot card for the RCV races with the attendant additional costs for printing and postage. In Aspen, Colorado, the elections department hired an outside consultant to help with the RCV elections. The outside consultant helped the elections department use their existing systems to handle the Top 2 elections and use off-the-shelf optical scanners plus open source software to tabulate the RCV results. The fees charged in Aspen were $7,500 plus expenses. These charges were substantially less than the cost savings associated with eliminating a run-off election. By using a strategy similar to Aspen's approach, Whatcom County could drive down the costs of implementing as compared to Pierce County. In addition, having the odd-numbered year elections would result in substantial cost savings by eliminating the need for a primary for the county level positions.

The Whatcom County situation is such that RCV will save Whatcom County money if it adopts RCV for its county level officials. The voting public would be put in the position of welcoming more candidates rather than dreading the costs. This would strengthen our democracy.

Whatcom County should adopt RCV to elect its county level officials. Once this is accomplished it becomes feasible for other Whatcom County jurisdictions such cities and school districts to use RCV to save money for their taxpayers as well. We are sure that the City of Bellingham would like to have the cost savings without sacrificing candidate participation.

Note: The cost allocation numbers are based on information received from Whatcom County Elections.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Will King County learn from Pierce County's experience?

Hint: Aspen, Colorado did.

King County has the opportunity to move its county level elections to Ranked Choice Voting, and, if done efficiently, saving money for the taxpayers. To do this, King County must learn from the experiences in Pierce County, Washington and Aspen, Colorado. The potential for savings in odd-numbered years is in the millions of dollars. How can King County accomplish this?

In November, 2008, Pierce County held its first ever Ranked Choice Voting election with races for County Executive, County Assessor-Treasurer, and County Sheriff and County Council. The Elections Department chose to implement Ranked Choice Voting through buying the software from their existing election systems vendor. The software was expensive and required a second ballot card with the associated printing and postage costs.

In May, 2009, Aspen, Colorado chose to employ a specialist firm who used the existing hardware and software for the standard elections and a combination of off-the-shelf optical scanners plus open source software to generate the Ranked Choice Voting results. This off-the-shelf solution does not require a second ballot card and the associated expenses.

Both in Pierce County and in Aspen, the systems provided ballot image files of the voters' choices and reporting of the rounds of RCV results. These reports represent a significant step forward in openness and transparency in elections. This publishing of results and ballot images is a model for all elections.

In Aspen, the vendor charged $7,500 plus expenses of getting there. These expenses were obviously less than the savings from eliminating a run-off election. Thus, Aspen saved money on a net basis as compared to their old system.

If King County were to move to RCV to elect its county level officials, it would save $1+ million in each odd-numbered year by folding the primary for those positions into the general election. The additional expense would be associated with getting state certification of the cheaper outside vendor plus a nominal sum for consulting and expenses. On a net basis, there would significant savings by the county.

Of course, if entities such as the Port of Seattle were to follow King County's lead, the expense savings would increase since there are significant economies of scale in using elections systems. The Port would likely save as much money as the County in moving to RCV, but is not likely to be able to do so unless the County makes the first move.

The King County Citizens' Elections Oversight Committee should recommend to the County Council and the voters of King County the implementation of RCV for King County's county level officials. RCV will encourage voter choice and save money for the county.

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Monday's Filings for 2009 Races: Bad News for Tacoma School Employees

Monday, June 1 was the first day of filing week to run for public office. The Tacoma School District already has three candidates for Position #2. This is good for democracy, but in our current election system it means that the School District will probably need to lay off another employee. Why?

Within the current top 2 system for electing school board members, having three candidates for one position means the District is required to hold a primary. In 2007, participating in the primary cost the District $85,000 or about one position.

Pierce County will be holding a special election for Auditor this year. However, there will be no primary due to the use of Ranked Choice Voting to elect the Auditor. Thus, the County itself will not be on the hook for any of the expense of the primary.

In King County, the County will be paying probably over $1 million for its participation in the primary process this year. The Port of Seattle is already on the hook to participate in the primary as well since one of the Port Commissioner posts already has three candidates who have filed to run.

It remains to be seen if the Port of Tacoma will have to face the $325,000 bill for the primary. No race has three candidates yet..., but we have only seen the filings from Monday so far. Candidates have until Friday to file to run for office.

King County, as a charter county, has the right to bow out of this craziness of discouraging candidates from running by adopting Ranked Choice Voting. However, entities such as the Ports and the School Districts are prevented by the state legislature from adopting Ranked Choice Voting. Thus, they are stuck with the bill for the primary.