Aug. 10, 2008 -- When I saw in the Source that the Virgin Islands Supervisor of Elections had requested $1.6 million to run his operation for the fiscal year starting October 1, I wondered how much it costs to run an election in my home county (Arlington, Virginia).
We have about twice the population of the Virgin Islands so I expected that our election costs would be higher, in total, than those of the islands.
Wrong, very wrong.
Here are the numbers: there will be about 100,000 voters in Arlington this fall; the local election board will have $661,000 to run the election, at a cost of $6.61 per vote. (In another Virginia county, Henrico, we found the cost per vote was $10.12.)
In the Virgin Islands there were 32,263 votes cast in the first round of the 2006 gubernatorial election, a higher turnout than can be expected for the legislative elections this year; comparing that to the $1.6 million request we find a cost per vote of $49.97. That's 7 ½ times as expensive, per vote, as in my home county.
Why the huge difference?
Arlington County has the advantage of scale, in that big operations are a little cheaper to run, per unit, than smaller ones. Arlington County also is a single geographic entity, and the elections supervisor never has to hop a plane to get to a meeting in another part of the county.
Given these factors maybe the Virgin Islands should expect to pay twice as much per vote as Arlington does, but seven and a half times?
Now Arlington is not one of those poor rural counties that spend tiny sums on public services. Our schools are good and expensive, our jail is the best in the state, and we spend public moneys on arts, recreation, and low-income housing. We are not skinflints and we vote for progressives by two- and three-to-one margins. Our elections run smoothly.
But in purely administrative functions, like running an election, we are careful with our funds.
Let's look at the details.
Arlington has a single entity running its elections; in the Virgin Islands there are three of them, to quote the territorial budget, they include the V.I. Election System, the St.Thomas/St. John Board of Elections and the St. Croix Board of Elections.
In Arlington, the Electoral Board has three unpaid members.
One cannot tell from the V.I. budget, or at least the one that's on line, how many election board members there are, and how much, if anything, they are paid. When I was in New Jersey politics, decades ago, there was in each a county a four-member board of election, two from each party, and membership carried attractive, part-time salaries.
In Arlington the elections supervisor is assisted by 7.4 full-time equivalent staff members, or one paid staff person for every 11,905 voters.
In the Virgin Islands there are, again according to the budget, 11 full time positions for the Election System, plus one more for each of the local election boards, or a total of 13 staff positions, or one for every 2,482 voters.
One more financial comparison: although Arlington is in a relatively high-wage area, with the lowest unemployment rate in the state, and the County government constantly has to compete for workers with the better-paying federal government on the other side of the river, the average personnel cost for its 8.4 election workers is $58,606.
The comparable figure for the three V.I. election entities is $76,483. (All these calculations assume that the number of staff members in the two budgets, and the stated costs of salaries and fringe benefits, are correct.)
So each of the Virgin Islands electoral workers has to cope with about one-fifth the voter case load of the staff in Arlington, and each of the ones in the Virgin Islands is paid about 30 percent more for doing so.
If these data for the costs of the electoral process are at all representative of Virgin Islands governmental efficiency, then it is no wonder that the territorial government has huge financial headaches!
David North, a retired Department of the Interior official and a resident of Arlington, Virginia, writes about government and money from time to time. He pointed out a couple of years ago that the V.I. Lottery was the only one in the history of the U.S. to run at a loss; he has also written about the V.I. Department of Education's unused federal funds returned to the U.S. Treasury.
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