The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Primary election no inexpensive operation; A1

Shenandoah County’s total cost may be as high as $23 per vote

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Voters weren’t beating down the doors to vote in Tuesday’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary, but they’re picking up the tab for the election just the same.

In fact, the primary in Shenandoah County might end up costing taxpayers as much as $23 per vote.

The final figures haven’t been computed yet, but it looks like the county’s primary cost about $12,200, according to Lisa P. McDonald, the county’s voter registrar.

She said Tuesday’s high cost per vote is simply an outcome of low turnout.

“In my county I had 515 voters,” McDonald said, for a turnout of 2.16 percent. But registrars don’t have the luxury of planning for just a handful of participants.

Machines have to be ready and paper ballots have to be printed, just in case, said Winchester Registrar Joyce Braithwaite.

“You never know,” she said. “That’s something you can’t predict, if you’re going to have 10 or you’re going to have 400.”

Virginia law gives political parties a number of ways to choose candidates — state-run primary, caucus, convention or a firehouse primary.

In party-run nomination methods, the political party has to bear all the expenses. But if the candidate or party opts to have the State Board of Elections and its local counterparts run the show, cities and counties pay the bills regardless of how many voters show up.

The trade-off for having the local governments pick up the tab, though, is that the primary must be open to everyone.

Virginia doesn’t register voters by party, and lets any registered voter cast a ballot. The only restriction is that voters can’t vote in both the Republican and Democratic primary on the same day. In most areas, Wednesday’s contest was solely a Democratic affair.

A Republican committee from Chesterfield County is seeking to overturn the open primary law in court, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond hasn’t yet decided the matter.

Braithwaite said it’s not clear how much the city spent on Tuesday’s electoral event, but she did say it probably won’t wind up being a bargain.

Bills are still coming in to the city’s electoral board for things like paper ballots for absentees and programming for the new touch-screen voting machines.

“Basically, it costs the same amount of money to run an election with a 3 percent turnout as it does to have an election in November that will hopefully have a 30 to 40 percent turnout,” she said.

In fact, the only difference between June and November will be the number of poll workers, who make $100 per day each.

“We had 40 for this election,” Braithwaite said. “We probably will have between 50 to 60 for a November election,”

Registrars in Warren and Frederick counties both said they don’t have total costs for their elections tabulated yet, which saw 384 and 582 voters respectively.

With 99.88 percent of all precincts in the commonwealth reporting as of late Wednesday afternoon, voter turnout for the election was 3.44 percent, according to the Virginia State Board of Elections.

Expensive or not, that number doesn’t look bad compared with previous primary elections.

When Republicans took to the polls last year to pick a gubernatorial nominee, 3.98 percent of voters cast a ballot, while 4.23 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 2001 Democratic attorney general primary.

Only Virginia’s presidential primary elections garner much interest from voters.

When Democrats nominated U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., to run for the nation’s highest office in 2004, 9.32 percent of voters came to the polls to cast a ballot in Virginia’s Democratic contest.

Some 17.28 percent of registered voters turned up in 2000 for the GOP presidential primary.

Election Day is Nov. 7.