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Partisan Primaries Cost Taxpayers $400 Million Last Year

by Xander Pakzad, published

Taxpayers across the nation spent approximately $400 million to administer party elections last year. This public money was spent on partisan primaries. Tweet it: Tweet

The purpose of these primaries are to elect party representatives to be placed on a general election ballot. Board meetings, poll workers, and other costs for these private organizations were incurred by each state’s government.

The exact election laws vary by state, but most states require party affiliation in some form to participate in the selection of candidates in the primary. There are two general types of partisan systems with variations: a "closed" primary, where the party decides who can vote, or an "open primary," where voters can choose any party's ballot.

Only Washington state and California run completely non-partisan primaries. The fundamental difference in a non-partisan system is that the purpose of the primary is to narrow the playing field of candidates, regardless of their party affiliation. Under this system, all candidates and all voters participate on a single ballot. Tweet it: Tweet

Partisan Primaries

This study compiled data from nine states which was then projected across the country: Texas, New York, North Dakota, Idaho, Tennessee, Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Rhode Island. This sample represents the vast range of state expenditures compared to voting population in each state.

Figures were obtained from each state's secretary of state or Board of Elections, if such a distinction is made in a given state's administration.

  • State                            Total Cost of Primary               Average Cost/Voter
  • Texas                            $15,883,428.32                           $1.57
  • Indiana                          $6,969,771.96                             $2.24
  • Tennessee                    $4,577,041.57                             $1.57
  • Oklahoma                      $2,933,104.00                             $1.63
  • Idaho                             $2,840,471.00                             $3.93
  • North Dakota                 $1,352,114.00                             $3.39

Costs of the primary varied from $1.32 to almost $4 per voter in some states. Using estimates from a Pew Charitable Trusts study, New York's 2012 primaries cost $11 per voter. Rhode Island and South Carolina's primaries were approximated by their elections commissions at $750,000 and $3,500,000, respectively.

To obtain the total national cost, each of these rates were averaged and then multiplied by the number of registered voters in the 47 states with partisan primaries.

The operating costs of primary elections is incurred by the state. Expenses include the ballots, publications, supplies, rental of voting locations, state and county board meetings, and staff labor. Some of these costs, such as party-specific ballots, only benefit the private organizations that use them, not the population that pays for them.

Controversy often overlooks these administrative costs in favor of campaign finances. Despite the fact that individual campaigns and political action committees are almost entirely privately funded, they receive most of the criticism during election season. The function of public funds often goes unnoticed.

In most states, each individual county or town has jurisdiction over how an election is conducted and financed. The state then reimburses local municipalities for these costs, but most secretaries of state do not have readily available records of total reimbursement costs. These calculations are often delayed well into the following year, at which point news of the previous election cycle is outdated and ignored by the media.

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