This summer’s California gubernatorial recall election is costing $276 million: a lavish expenditure of taxpayer money often cited by recall opponents. While making recalls more difficult could save public funds, we should also consider precisely why this specific election is so expensive.
With just over 22 million registered voters in California, the cost of running the recall election works out to over $12 per voter. We could have saved about two thirds of this amount if the state legislature had decided to include the recall questions as part of the next regularly scheduled election. The Department of Finance estimated that consolidating the recall with other elections would have dropped the cost to just $90.6 million, or about $4 per registered voter.
But even if the recall issue was urgent enough to justify a standalone election, it should have been possible to do it cheaper. One major contributor to the overall cost is printing and mailing voter guides.
At my home, we received a total of four voter guides for our two registered voters. The two identical guides sent by our County told us where to vote (if we chose not to mail our ballots) and included Governor Newson’s statement. The second pair of guides, mailed by the Secretary of State, included statements from the 46 replacement candidates.
Significant savings would have been possible if the state and county guides were combined in a single volume and only one copy was mailed to each household. Better yet, election authorities could have directed us to online versions of the guide and allowed voters to opt out of receiving printed copies. The state could also shift to a system where online voter guides are the default while still ensuring those who want or need hard copies continue to receive them via mail and also have access to voter guides at libraries, government offices, and possibly other locations.
While most businesses went paperless years ago, it is frustrating to see that many governmental functions remain paper-based. Not only does this add costs; it is also bad for the environment. Even though the guides are typically printed on recycled paper, that paper could have been recycled for some other purpose.
Most of the $276 million expenditure comes from reimbursing counties for the costs they’re incurring to run the election. A review of the county level cost estimates shows a lot of variation across the state. For example, Riverside County is charging $5 million for its election efforts, while neighboring San Bernardino County is charging almost $34 million, despite having fewer registered voters. On a per registered voter basis, Riverside is administering the election for $3.89 per head compared to $29.71 for San Bernardino County. The state’s largest county, Los Angeles, is near the middle of the pack at $10.53. While it is unsurprising to see smaller counties like Alpine, Mono, and Trinity near the top of per voter cost ranking, given the existence of fixed costs, several other large counties are also well above the statewide average. These include Alameda, San Francisco, and San Joaquin. These counties may have something to learn from those that can conduct the election at a more reasonable cost.
The fact that taxpayers are spending more than a quarter of a billion dollars to decide whether Gavin Newsom will continue to occupy the Governor’s mansion for another 15 months should upset all Californians regardless of their perspective on the recall. But beyond asking whether the recall was necessary, voters should also wonder why the state cannot accomplish significant undertakings without breaking the bank.