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Democracy on a Shoestring

Posted by on Friday, May 28, 2021 in Articles, Volume 74, Volume 74, Number 4.

Joshua S. Sellers & Roger Michalski | 74 Vand. L. Rev. 1079 (2021) | 

Democracy requires money. Voters must be registered, voting rolls updated, election dates advertised, voting technology purchased and tested, poll workers trained, ballots designed, votes counted and verified, and on and on. Despite the importance of election expenditures, we have a shamefully inadequate amount of information about how much our elections cost. This Article, based on a novel and painstakingly hand-coded dataset, provides much needed information on election expenditures across multiple years from four states: California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida. These states, given their unique characteristics, provide a compelling sample set.

In what we believe to be a completely novel approach to the collection of election expenditure data, we supplement our hand-coded data with predictive machine learning. This allows us to estimate average annual election spending across multiple government units. Our findings, unsurprisingly, reveal great variation both across and within states. But our findings also reveal that much of the variation is seemingly unconnected to poverty, race, and other traditional explanations of electoral disadvantage. This brings into question many basic assumptions legislators, courts, and scholars harbor about election expenditures. Our findings implicate not only policy discussions about election funding but also the limitations of doctrinal interventions and judicial remedies that are divorced from issues of resource allocation.

The Article proceeds in five parts: Part I provides background on election funding, including a discussion of election costs and what the most common funding sources are. This Part also discusses election law doctrines and how they do not directly consider election expenditures. Part II outlines our data and methods. Part III presents our main findings. Part IV responds to the findings and explores potential doctrines under which election expenditures might be considered. Part V weighs the pros and cons of several nondoctrinal proposals for election administration reform.

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Joshua S. Sellers and Roger Michalski