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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At 6:30 PM, Blogger Charles said...

Thanks Kelly,

One of my concerns is, are the cost savings significant enough for Whatcom County to adapt RCV?
I have been told that
the software we have either can already do some versions of Ranked Choice Voting (there are about 5 major variants), or it is not a big deal to add on.
As for a second ballot card, I think the same layout can be used - just devising the software setup to know what each mark (and now, each set of marks) means.

In regards to the State and Federal elections, they will probably continue to have a primary - that election will still have to be run - so the cost savings there will be small. The cost savings would only apply in the years when there are NO State and Federal elections with Primaries.

So, can economy be a major driver?

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