The special election for U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ former Senate seat has already cost taxpayers more than $497,000 locally, and this week Mobile County Commissioners approved a third six-figure expenditure toward the contest they didn’t know they’d be funding this time last year.
While the cost of facilitating the election might seem high, it’s hard to say the same about the voter turnout in its first two phases.
Of the 283,754 eligible voters in Mobile County, only 15 percent turned out to the polls for the August primary — 3 percent below the state average and the 8th lowest among all Alabama counties. Even fewer voters cast a ballot in the Sept. 26 GOP runoff that saw former Chief Justice Roy Moore handily defeat incumbent Sen. Luther Strange to secure the Republican nomination.
Yet the Mobile County Commission still spent nearly a half-million dollars facilitating those contests and is primed to add a minimum of $260,000 more for the Dec. 12 general election between Moore and Democratic candidate Doug Jones.
Based on voter turnout, the $271,387 the county put into the August primary translated to roughly $6.30 for each participating voter. For reference, had all 283,754 registered voters participated, the cost would have been closer to 95 cents per ballot cast.
Divide the $225,715 cost of facilitating the runoff by the 15 percent of voters who showed up, and that figure comes out to somewhere around $6.41 for each voter — around eight times what the average cost would have been with 100 percent voter participation.
Again, election officials anticipate a low turnout for the Dec. 12 election both locally and statewide. This week, Commission President Merceria Ludgood told Lagniappe the cost of the elections isn’t what she finds troubling, it’s the lack of interest in the democratic process.
“The vote is a fundamental component of our democracy, and we’ve got a situation where the vast majority of people basically aren’t participating,” Ludgood said. “Although turnout in the minority community is low, it’s not just those communities. It’s all of them. This crosses socioeconomic and racial boundaries and affects rural and urban areas.”
While the cost of facilitating an election is steep, local officials also don’t have much of a say when it comes to the funds they’re expending. In Alabama, any election voting outside of a municipal election is overseen and coordinated by the local probate court, which is funded by the county.
While the state reimburses some of the costs incurred during an election, exactly how much depends on several factors and can at times seem arbitrary.
Mobile County Director of Public Affairs and Community Services Kathy Eddy said the County Commission typically submits a request to the state for a 100 percent reimbursement for elections that have no local issues on the ballot and only 50 percent for those that do.
Even then, the state pays out different reimbursement rates for various poll worker positions and other miscellaneous costs, such as mileage. For example, when the county requested $124,337 after a 2016 runoff election, the state reimbursed the county around 85 percent of the cost.
And not all local expenses qualify for reimbursement, either. After the August Senate primary, the county billed the state $205,298, which is only 75 percent of the county’s cost. As of Oct. 24, the state had not yet reimbursed those expenses, according to Eddy.
What’s more, many of the regulations governing these elections are also codified by state law.
For instance, Mobile County Judge Don Davis said that, in the event of a runoff, there are statutory requirements to use the same poll workers employed in the primary. That’s true even in contests such as last month’s runoff, which was only open to those who voted in the GOP primary because of Alabama’s recent ban on crossover voting.
There were at least 7,287 fewer participating voters in the runoff than the primary, which saw a 12 percent turnout locally. At least two of the county’s 89 precincts recorded no votes at all, and around half a dozen saw fewer than 10 participating voters. Yet there was roughly the same number of poll workers, which according to Davis was a little more than 800.
Workers are paid a one-time fee for their service ranging from $75 to $200 based on the job performed. The cost of hiring those workers is the most expensive part of an election, followed by the cost of purchasing the actual ballots and other supplies — an area where local election officials have a little more flexibility to control costs.
For instance, Mobile County doesn’t always follow provisions of the election code that require one of every ballot type for each registered voter. Instead, Davis said his office regularly uses data from prior elections to determine how many ballots are needed for a particular race.
“While there’s no exact science to it, we try where we can to reduce the printing expense because these ballots are so expensive to print,” he added. “If we’re expecting a very heavy turnout, we’re going to print one of each, but if we’re not, there’s no reason to.”
While what percentage of the county’s ongoing expenses will be reimbursed by the state remains to be seen, Davis said there is no way for local officials to pick and choose which precincts to open just because few voters are expected.
As for Ludgood, she seemed more concerned with how local officials can help residents see the value of exercising their right to vote, even when they may not like their choices.
“Even if it’s a lesser-of-two-evils situation, I still want to be on record and be able to say, ‘I showed up and voiced what I thought,’” she said. “Historically, when you look at other countries … with these kinds of downturns in voter participation, nothing good has happened. Some of our horror stories in world history came as a result of people disengaging from the process.”