The price tag for the 2008 presidential election in Colorado eclipsed the amount spent in 2004, and in one county ran as high as $36.57 per vote.
County clerks disclosed cost figures Friday to emphasize the need to simplify an election process that has become extremely expensive and difficult to administer because of regulations regarding the use of electronic voting machines, audit procedures, and giving voters a variety of options to cast ballots.
"Elections have gotten very complex, and federal and state legislation ... keeps driving the cost of elections up," Larimer County Scott Doyle said.
The vast majority of those costs are paid by county taxpayers.
Given the current economic pressures, "I don't know that counties can continue to bear the weight," Doyle said.
The 2002 Help America Vote Act passed by Congress was aimed at improving access to the voting booth and making elections more accurate and secure.
But recent regulations at the federal and state level have caused headaches for local election officials. They must keep chain of custody logs of every voting and counting machine, keep 24-hour cameras in the rooms that hold ballots and machines, and use secure transmission lines for their computer software that count votes.
Sometimes, the laws don't make sense.
Federal law requires polling places to have at least one voting terminal that is accessible for disabled voters.
Tiny Hinsdale County bought three electronic voting machines and spends thousands of dollars a year to maintain, program and secure them, said Clerk Linda Pavich Ragle.
Expenses associated with the machines account for most of the $21,000 cost of the general election last year, she said. That was almost five times the cost of running the 2004 general election, she said. With 581 votes cast, each ballot cost more than $36 to distribute and count.
"The costs are eating us up," she said.
Ironically, none of the disabled voters in Ragle's county used the machines. They cast paper ballots.
In fact, nobody used the county's electronic voting machines last year, Ragle said.
Newly appointed Secretary of State Bernie Buescher expressed concern Friday to state lawmakers about the ballooning cost of elections. The state reimburses large counties 70 cents per vote cast, and small counties 80 cents per vote.
"For us to pay 70 cents or 80 cents is, I believe, an inadequate share," Buescher told the joint State Military and Veterans Affairs committee. "I would urge the General Assembly to figure out a way for us to pick up a more appropriate part of the share."
For small counties, the cost of elections are "truly staggering," Buescher said.
Election officials are urging lawmakers to find ways to make elections less expensive and unwieldy.
Legislative proposals expected to be debated soon include:
-- Allowing counties to run mail-ballot-only elections.
-- Permitting counties to forego primary elections when there are no contested races. Primaries cost more per vote cast than general elections because the turnout is lower.
-- To allow electronic machines to keep their certification without retesting.
Colorado Counties Inc. is pushing a proposal to allow counties to forego polling place elections in favor of mail voting.
Andy Karsian, legislative liaison for the organization, said elections get more costly each year. "What we're asking the state to do is to allow counties ... to run those elections in a fiscally responsible way," he said.
Last year, the vast majority of votes were cast by mail and more paper ballots were offered at polling places. County clerks essentially administer three elections at the same time: mail voting, early voting and Election Day voting.
Jefferson County Clerk Pam Anderson said three out of four of her voters already cast mail ballots. But the requirement to conduct polling place elections, and her choice to widen the availability of paper ballots doubled the cost of the general election in Jeffco compared to 2004, hitting more than $2 million.
Denver elections director Michael Scarpello said he's still analyzing costs but is certain that the 2008 election was more expensive than 2004.
Complete statewide cost breakdowns haven't been submitted yet to the state. Those dollars cover the printing and mailing of paper ballots, which were two pages long in most counties, salaries for poll workers, and the maintenance and programming of electronic voting and counting machines, among other expenses.
Ragle, the Hinsdale County Clerk, hopes lawmakers will step in.
"For us small counties, they better do something different, or I don't know how we're going to stay afloat."
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