When it comes to discussing Morgantown’s Vote By Mail program, we keep hearing from some City Councilors that it must be altered (if not outright abandoned). The reason for this, they claim, is varied, but usually focuses on a financial argument.
There’s no denying that 2011’s City Council election was far more costly than 2009’s. The 2011 election cost roughly $36,000; 2009’s cost roughly $15,000. That’s a huge difference. It definitely one of the answers that we keep hearing from City Councilors who want to suppress the city’s voter turnout. Ron Bane champions that explanation here.
The problem though is this: if you take anything more than a cursory glance at the city’s election spending, it becomes abundantly clear that by almost any metric, 2011’s election was cheap. It was especially cheap if you’re calculate using the total election cost against the number of votes.
-2005’s election produced 1403 votes at a total cost of $20,068. Votes cost the city $14.30 apiece.
-2007’s election produced 225 votes (that isn’t a typo) at a total cost of $15,044. Votes cost the city $66.86 apiece.
-2009’s election produced 1467 votes at a total cost of $15,240. Votes cost the city $10.39 apiece.
-2011’s election produced 3699 votes at a total cost of the aforementioned $35,832. Votes cost the city $9.68 apiece.
Yes, 2011’s election cost more total, but per vote, it was a cheaper election. Keep the fact that City Councilors aren’t talking about cost per vote in mind, because these numbers actually get worse.
City Councilors opposed to Vote By Mail (Jim Manilla, Wes Nugent, Ron Bane, and presumably Linda Herbst) that 2009’s election was cheaper, so we should revert to a model that looks something like it. That’s mistaken though. 2009’s and 2011’s elections are comparable because of the vast disparity in voter participation.
Interestingly though, if you combine the numbers from 2005, 2007, and 2009, you’ll get 3095 votes. That’s not very close to 2011’s turnout (3699 votes) but it’s certainly closer than any of those elections got by themselves. It cost the city $50,352 to generate 3095 votes. Those votes cost the city $16.27 apiece. In other words, City Councilors prefer a system in which the city pays $16.27 per vote than one which pays $9.68 per vote.
The answer isn’t participation. We can be almost certain that participation will drop were we to revert back to older methods of voting. Mayor Manilla has proposed hybrid mechanisms of voting (in which those who want to Vote By Mail are forced to go downtown to sign up for the opportunity), but there is no reason to believe that 2200 (the difference between 2009’s and 2011’s participation) voters are going to go downtown to sign up for the opportunity.
So then, if Vote By Mail is a more cost efficient way of producing votes, why abandon it? The only obvious answer is suppressing local voter participation. Why would City Councilors want to do that? To make their own re-election easier.
Instead of candidates being able to reach out to their supporters to remind them to return the ballots that they’ve received in the mail, sitting Councilors are proposing that those candidates ought to be required either to get those supporters to vote in person or to get their supporters to request ballots ahead of them. Doing that on a large scale is difficult, especially if you’re already campaigning against incumbent politicians who enjoy name recognition throughout town.
Further complicating things is the city’s bizarre insistence on city-wide voting; that also serves as a disincentive for candidates running against an incumbent, as they have to draw votes from across the city, not simply from the neighborhood they’re proposing to represent.
It isn’t in the sitting City Councilors interest to have voting be easier. They want it to be harder and more complicated, because that has the effect of reducing the competition they’ll face. Oddly though, three of the councilors currently opposed to Vote By Mail almost certainly benefited from it. It returned Manilla to office and represented the gateway for both Nugent and Herbst. None of them were on the council when the decision was made to go forward with the Vote By Mail program.
Now that they’ve each benefited from it, they seem to want to slam the door shut behind them.