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Political Research Exchange

The Cost of Democracy: What Determines Spending on the Governance and Public Administration of Elections?

Public Administration
Public Policy
Alistair Clark
University of Newcastle
Alistair Clark
University of Newcastle

In advanced democracies, elections are the only process which involves the whole eligible population in deciding upon their leadership, policy direction and representatives for several years into the future. The governance of the electoral process is however organizationally highly complex, requiring considerable administrative and organizational capacity. Among many other things, to record electors’ choices an electoral register must be established, ballot papers printed, staff employed and trained, and polling stations set up. Poor performance in any of these areas can lead to large numbers of voters being disenfranchised and the integrity, legitimacy and outcome of elections undermined. The governance of the electoral process is therefore of key interest. Nonetheless, as Wise (2001: 138) observed shortly after the Bush-Gore controversy in 2000, ‘public administration has not devoted attention to electoral administration with anything like the priority it has given to other areas of public policy’. While international interest in electoral integrity is steadily growing (see: Birch, 2011; Norris, 2014), this remains an understudied area in the fields of both public administration and governance, and also electoral politics.
Providing sufficient capacity to manage a national electoral process is expensive. Whether in democratizing countries or established democracies, surprisingly little scholarly literature assesses the twin questions of: how much does electoral democracy cost; and what drives the cost of electoral governance? These are nonetheless crucial questions for democracies and for the study of political science and public administration. Without considerable spending on election administration, elections could either not be held, or would be open to question with regard to the integrity of the process. While a rare IFES/UNDP (2005) report began to categorize and estimate election costs, it was less successful in examining and identifying what was driving the various costs involved. Others have noted that even within the same state, election costs are seldom recorded consistently, thereby limiting the potential for research and theory building in this area (Montjoy, 2010). This paper’s major contribution is to begin to identify some of the drivers impacting on the cost of electoral governance in advanced democracies. To do so, it presents a multivariate analysis of rare, and consistent, nationwide datasets of spending on electoral administration in British local authorities in a number of elections. These are examined against a range of variables including electoral, socio-economic, organisational and administrative data. The findings establish a range of determinants of greater spending, and hence capacity, in electoral governance. They also highlight the pressures electoral administrators are under in an age of public spending austerity.
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