US 2012: The diseconomy of the cost of American elections

After the most expensive presidential election ever (more than one billion dollars was spent), Cormac Hollingsworth look at how efficient all the spending was.


After the American election results have rumbled in, we should pause and ask, was the enormous amount that was spent on them efficient?

The Center for Responsive Politics reported last week that the aggregate election spending for the 2012 American elections will be a record $6 billion, $700 million more than 2008.

One way of looking at the cost of voting is to examine the per-voter cost.

For example, in Australia, if you don’t vote you’re fined A$20 (US$21).  As a result of this individual financial incentive, turnout there is consistently above 90 per cent.

With 206 million the eligible voting population in the 2008 American elections, spending was equivalent to a per voter cost of $25.

Of course, because people don’t receive this when they vote, this is going to be less efficient than an individual system, so we shouldn’t be surprised that, in 2008, turnout was only 64 per cent.

This time around, however, the 2012 cost will be $29 per eligible voter (203 million voting eligible voters).

The Center of Responsive Politics puts the blame for the record spending on the effect of the Citizens United judgment, resulting in an extra $970 million “being raised and spent by outside – and ostensibly independent – organizations”.

American election spending is exhibiting clear signs of diseconomy. But why is the per-eligible voter cost a whopping 40 per cent premium over the Aussie fine? I suspect the culprit is the high cost of voter suppression.

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