2012 to be a costly year for elections

The County Account

In 1713, Dutchess County residents elected their government leaders for the first time. Fast forward to 2012. This year the size of government and its inability to coordinate will provide unparalleled election opportunities in rapid succession. Unfortunately, each comes with a steep price tag.

On March 20 voters in our region will vote to elect a representative to the New York State Assembly in a special election to replace Marc Molinaro, who resigned to serve as Dutchess county executive. A month later New York will hold its presidential primary on April 24, followed by a court ordered primary for U.S. Congressional seats set for June 26.

The primary date will be moved up from September in compliance with the federal Military and Overseas Voting Act that mandates additional time for absentee ballots. The state also will move up its September primary and is eyeing August for such purpose. The result, including November’s general election, is that voters will go to the ballot box five times in 2012.

Each election costs about $100,000 to administer, with costs shared between the county and towns. At the county level, we budgeted for the special and presidential elections, but not for the additional primary date, which exists only because state and federal leaders have failed to discuss a common primary date. (State legislators are resisting the notion to hold state primaries on the June 26th federal primary day as the Albany Legislature is still in session in June giving challengers an unfair campaigning advantage).

Especially hard hit will likely be our towns, which under cost-sharing must pay for the local election costs from unbudgeted sales tax revenues.

Cost controls are needed to minimize damages. In 2010, I authored the Legislator’s Guide to Cost-Savings at the Board of Elections, a 59-page report that suggested local ways to rein in spending. We adopted some of these ideas later in the year that amounted to a half million dollar reduction in Board of Election costs.

How can costs be further mitigated? For starters, it makes perfect sense for the federal and state primary be held the same day. A second proposal is to reduce the number of inspectors mandated at poll sites. Under current state law, every election district must be staffed by four inspectors. This is unnecessary, especially as seen in the town of Washington, where 16 paid inspectors congregate in the Millbrook firehouse where all four election districts meet in the center of town. Presently, there is no mechanism in the law in place to reduce that number to the appropriate workload for each specific town.

Third, it’s time the law caught up to the new voter machine technology as mandated by the Help Americans Vote Act. Because the old lever machines would stop working after the 999th voter showed up to vote, a cap on the number of voters in an election district should be enlarged from the current 1,150 voters to 2,500 (or to 4,000 with local commissioner approval).

This change, which the new machines can easily process, will allow the number of election districts to be reduced, which in turn will reduce the number of inspectors who must be paid, as well as related machine deployment, transportation, and training costs.

Every freedom has its cost. Hopefully our elected leaders in Albany will do their part to make voting cheaper for the taxpayer.

Michael N. Kelsey represents Amenia, Washington, Stanford, Pleasant Valley and Millbrook in the Dutchess County Legislature. Write him at KelseyESQ@yahoo.com. Dutchess County Elections Commissioner Erik Haight contributed to this story.