Early voting was touted as a way to make it easier for citizens to cast ballots and lure more voters to the polls.
It certainly made it easier, but suburban election officials say they never saw the bump in participation. What they did see was a bump in election costs.
In DuPage County, the combined costs of the primary and general elections of 2008 were nearly $450,000 more than in 2004, when early voting didn't exist. In Kane County, costs rose more than $400,000 between the two presidential election years.
"Early voting doesn't save you money," said Bob Saar, executive director of the DuPage Election Commission. "It allows us to have fewer polling locations, so we save some money there, and allows us to rein in some expenses. But it costs you money."
Next year's expenses already will be amplified because it's a presidential election, which draws more voters than any other election. Throw in a couple new election requirements like voting by mail and multi-language election materials, and suburban election officials are concerned about costs. All while they report stagnating or declining voter turnout despite the increased opportunities to cast a ballot.
Turnout between the November 2004 and November 2008 elections by voters in DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and suburban Cook counties dipped more than 2 percent, according to data collected from county election officials.
In DuPage County, Saar estimates it cost $10,000 a day to operate the county's 15 early voting sites during the 22-day early voting period ahead of the general election in November 2008. DuPage County saved thousands of dollars during the 2008 primary by only offering six early voting sites scattered throughout the county, while other counties offered the same number of early voting sites during both the primary and general election.
It cost DuPage County taxpayers $4.57 per vote in the 2008 primary versus the $5.54 it cost them in the general election, according to election commission figures. Meanwhile, Kane County election officials spent the same $820,000 on both the primary and general elections, so it cost $9.76 a vote in the primary for Kane County taxpayers and $4.99 a vote in the general election, since nearly twice as many voters showed up in November, according to data from the county clerk's office.
"We have to be careful about cutting because of uniformity and consistency," said Jay Bennett, Kane County's chief deputy clerk.
For the most part, departmental budget requests are less than they were in 2008, but it's unclear how much of that has to do with office cutbacks versus reducing the price tags of elections.
Surprisingly, some counties don't track direct election costs and there's no requirement to do so. McHenry County Clerk Katherine Schultz said the county's election costs are lumped into her office's annual budget. Officials in Cook County Clerk David Orr's office said there are no breakdowns available for the costs of the 2004 and 2008 elections, nor were there any estimates on what the 2012 election costs would be.
Election officials contend legislative requirements limit what they can do to cut costs between primaries and general elections.
Early voting is a legislatively mandated three-week period that ends a few days before the Tuesday election. Election officials believe some tax dollars could be saved by shaving some of the days off early voting. Orr said in Cook County almost as many early voters cast ballots in the last four days of the period as do in the preceding 18 days.
"Early voting is a little longer than it needs to be," Orr said. "If we added the Friday and Saturday before the election, you could knock up to five days off at the beginning."
Other election officials believe the early voting period could be reduced even more, which would allow them to shuffle funds to the newer mandates.
The new vote-by-mail option approved by the state last year will increase printing and postage costs, but other resulting costs aren't yet known. Also, new census figures show Hispanic populations in DuPage and Lake counties topped a federally mandated threshold that requires election officials to create Spanish-language ballots and materials. Cook and Kane counties are already required to print election materials in multiple languages.
Bennett said DuPage and Lake election officials can expect initial increases to their election cost because of the new Spanish-language requirements.
"Absolutely," he said. "Oh sure. That first nip when everything has to be reprinted. But once they get into it, it's manageable."
When early voting came along, the response from election officials was to reduce and consolidate polling sites on Election Day to absorb some of the costs. More of that could be on the horizon, some said.
Lake County Clerk Willard Helander said her office has "been on a cost-saving run" as a result of the "tremendous mandates" imposed. Consolidating and reducing polling sites could mean longer lines at the voting booths come Election Day.
"Every voter will appreciate waiting a little longer if it can save their tax dollars," she said.
Orr said he is shaving $1 million from his budget by consolidating precincts and shrinking the number of polling sites in Cook County.
"I do not think the voters will suffer," Orr said. "I would never use money as an excuse if I thought it would impede the democratic process."
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