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The Price of Free Elections

Posted by on Thursday, August 26, 2021 in Articles, En Banc, Responses, Volume 74.

G. Michael Parsons | 74 Vand. L. Rev. En Banc 335 (2021) |

How much does an election cost? For a democracy as old as ours, the answer is surprisingly unclear . . . .

Among the many contributions of Democracy on a Shoestring, then, is to spur more concrete thinking about the costs and consequences of our country’s devolved and varied spending patterns and decisions—a topic that generated substantial interest after the 2000 election but has since waned. Sellers and Michalski have given us a wealth of empirical, doctrinal, conceptual, and practical information to kickstart these conversations.

In this response I offer two areas that warrant further emphasis and examination. In Part I, I highlight how many of the potential policy solutions identified by Sellers and Michalski could be far more powerful if implemented at the federal level rather than the state level. This includes the benefits of increased funding, uniform data collection, and soft consolidation of purchasing and expertise to leverage economies of scale. While the authors understandably focus on state-level action given the historically “hyper-decentralized” nature of election administration, recent elections reveal new reasons to believe the politics underlying this traditional arrangement may (and should) be shifting. 

In Part II, I examine the authors’ surprising finding that variations in election spending are unconnected to poverty, race, and other traditional explanations of electoral disadvantage. This finding suggests that disparate electoral opportunities are not simply a matter of unequal funding. Instead, we must look elsewhere to identify the source of these disadvantages. While Sellers and Michalski seem skeptical that electoral disadvantage may thus be attributable to variations in the relative needs of communities, I believe that this kind of “structural suppression” could be more substantial than the authors credit, and that future research should focus on rigorously examining and quantifying this phenomenon. 

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 G. Michael Parsons*