Public database of county by county elections costs in the works for California

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

(photos: Wikimeda Commons/Pixabay)

Dwindling turnout at the polls demonstrates a clear need for additional electoral reforms aimed at increasing California’s chronically low voter participation rate. Identifying which policies deliver the biggest bang for the buck is the hard part. But it’s about to get a lot easier.

The California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO) is building a public online database of elections costs to better inform policies and procedures and to identify and share best practices with a grant awarded from the James Irvine Foundation.

This is a big deal! Here’s why.

A slew of election reforms are proposed each year. When reviewing a measure, one of the first things legislators want to know is: What’s the cost?

“We’ve never been able to answer that question statewide,” said Neal Kelley, Orange County Registrar of Voters and CACEO President. “Now we’re going to be at that point where we can, and I think it’s really important to be able to be part of the discussion when it comes to new legislation.”

For years, Doug Chapin, Director of the Future of California Elections, has referred to election costs as the “big white whale” of election administration. California’s diversity and sheer size has hindered any quest to capture the elusive and valuable data. 

California is composed of 58 incredibly diverse counties, ranging in population from 1,200 in Alpine County to 10 million in Los Angeles County. As a result, election procedures and language assistance requirements vary considerably from county to county. Not only do jurisdictions often conduct elections differently, they also calculate the costs of conducting elections differently. 

For example, Orange County uses 8,000 cost categories to track election spending, while a neighboring county might only use 100 categories, Kelley explained. 

Simply making these datasets publicly available won’t necessarily foster greater accountability or efficiency. The current lack of a uniform election cost data collection standard poses a significant challenge for anyone hoping to glean useful information from the data. Standardization is key to unlocking the data’s incredible potential.

“We’re going to try to agree on specific standards within those cost categories that every county can use, so that way when Lake County is reporting a cost it’s the same as Orange County reporting the cost,” Kelley said. 

By allowing for apples-to-apples comparison of election costs across counties, the database will enable policymakers to more accurately assess the fiscal impact of legislative proposals and empower elections administrators to set and measure their performance. This tool aims to harness the power of technology and transparency to encourage broader adoption of a data-driven approach to election administration.


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg