Columbia election cost taxpayers $139.78 per vote

Published 12:56 pm Friday, January 31, 2020

The Columbia Board of Aldermen on Jan. 6 decided to ask Sen. Bob Steinburg and Rep. Ed Goodwin to introduce a bill in the state’s General Assembly aimed at reducing the cost of municipal elections.

The action came after the Tyrrell County Board of Elections billed the town $4,472.89 to conduct the aldermanic election last November 5.

The legislation sought would authorize towns with fewer than 1,500 inhabitants to use paper ballots for secret voting and public hand-counting of those ballots to determine the outcome, the procedure used since the town was established in 1793 until the state board of elections began requiring the use of vote-counting machines. The most recent hand count here was in 2007.

The names of two incumbent aldermen, Lloyd Armstrong and Sandra Owens, were on the Nov. 5 ballot to succeed themselves in office. No one among the town’s approximately 400 registered voters challenged them.

Adding up the absentees by mail, early voting, and election day results, total voter turnout was 32 individuals, making the cost per ballot cast at $139.78.

County elections director Emily Hodges explained that the billing reflects the expense of poll workers on duty in the elections office in the Courthouse during the early voting period.

Ballot printing cost $92.62. A representative from Election System & Software coded and prepared the vote-counting machine at a cost of $1,609.08. Four poll workers were trained (and three worked) at a cost of $1,210.76. The four-member county elections board met six times at a cost of $1,500. These required meetings included sessions every Tuesday, training sessions, pre-election setup, election day, hand/eye count and on canvass day, Hodges explained.

Offsetting these expenses was filing-fee revenue of $10, $5 from each of the two candidates.

Columbia’s officials have sought for years to be allowed to implement hand-counting of ballots, and there’s a law on the books authorizing such action in uncontested elections such as the one here in 2019.

But the state board of elections overrode the law last November, saying a hand-counted paper ballot election violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Generally, a federal law trumps an inconsistent state constitution or law, as the state board rules in this case, and that leads some observers to believe the proposed state law would face the same fate.