How much do elections really cost?

October 13, 2016

By Maggie Tomasek

How much do elections really cost?

cost of national elections

Elections are expensive. They cost money, time and energy – and they may even cost you a Facebook friend or two.

But when it comes to the actual dollars and cents, just how expensive are national elections? Let’s take a look.

Presidential vs. Mid-Term

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which compiled data from the Federal Election Commission’s October 11 report, during the 2015–2016 election cycle:

  • A combined $969 million has been spent for all 25 presidential candidates.
  • A combined $901 million has been spent for all 2,483 congressional candidates. That includes $27.9 million spent in the Florida Senate alone.

By comparison:

  • A total of $3.85 billion was spent during the 2014 mid-term federal election cycle.
  • A total of $6.29 billion was spent during the 2012 presidential election cycle, including $3.66 billion on congressional races.

Why is the spending this year so much lower than for the 2012 election? Keep in mind that the biggest advertising barrage tends to occur in the last few weeks before the election, so a sizable portion of ad spending hasn’t happened yet. Also, TV advertisting spending overall is significantly lower than in the last election. According to Forbes magazine, TV ad spending from mid-August to mid-September is down more than 40% versus the same time period in the 2012 election cycle.

But still, the $1.8 billion that has been spent so far is a lot of money. So where does it all go? Many people think advertising is the only major cost that candidates incur, but there is so much more. Things like payroll for campaign staff, rent (that staff needs somewhere to work, after all), insurance, office supplies and travel – not to mention all that campaign swag, such as T-shirts, hats and yard signs – really add up.

Individual Donors

About 1.2 million Americans have donated more than $200 to individual campaigns this election cycle, according to the most recent FEC filings. (Donations less than $200 don’t have to be reported to the FEC.) 

Individuals can donate up to $2,700 per candidate per election. However, campaign contributions made to a political candidate, campaign committee or newsletter fund are not tax deductible, and neither are admissions to fundraiser events for candidates or political parties. 

Although individuals can’t write off campaign contributions, they can set aside $3 of their taxes to go to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund on their 1040 federal income tax return.

Election Administration

What about the costs of administering an election? Ballots and voting machines cost money, but figuring out the exact costs can be trickier, in large part because several levels of government are involved in running and paying for elections. Plus, every state’s laws and practices are a little different, so it’s hard to pin down election administration costs, even for a federal election.

In 2002, Congress established the Election Assistance Commission under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which required states to establish statewide voter registration databases while providing funds to state and local voting districts. HAVA funds are used to pay for upgrading voting machines, registering voters, providing provisional voting options and implementing other election administration improvements, such as training for election officials and poll workers, polling place accessibility advances and information on how and where to vote.

Between 2003 and September 30, 2015, states spent nearly $3.2 billion in HAVA funds, according to the Election Assistance Commission. At $26.2 million, California has spent the most, which makes sense, considering it also has the largest population and the most electoral votes (55).

Even after taking into account all of these costs, don’t forget that the most important thing anyone can do in an election is vote – and that’s still free.

Maggie Tomasek is the PR and Content Strategist at Alliant. She began her career as a sports journalist for newspapers in Utica, N.Y., Des Moines and Cincinnati before moving to Chicago in 2009. Maggie is an eight-time Chicago Marathon finisher and a lifelong creative writer with a passion for comedy. Her mom instilled in her a great sense of fiscal responsibility, and her big sister told her to throw that responsibility out the window every once in a while in the name of life experience. So far, that combination of financial advice has worked out pretty well for her.

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