Potential Cost Savings of Secure Automatic Voter Registration in California

March 13, 2023

Improving California’s Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) system can save California county election officials over $9 million dollars each election cycle while expanding access to voter registration and ensuring current and accurate voter rolls.

Secure Automatic Voter Registration

  • California can transition its existing partial automatic voter registration (PAVR) system to a secure automatic voter registration (SAVR) system to automatically register eligible citizens or update existing registrations based on DMV or Medi-Cal transactions.
  • In a SAVR system, existing registrants have their registrations automatically updated based on any new name or address information provided to the DMV or Medi-Cal agency. Similarly, any adult who provides the DMV a document establishing U.S. citizenship or is verified as a citizen as part of the Medi-Cal transaction has their information automatically transmitted for registration. A person with a new or updated registration is informed of the change by mail and given the chance to decline the change.
  • This system gives election officials the most complete and accurate information, and ensures the maximum number of eligible voters are registered and have their registration updated at the DMV and through Medi-Cal applications.

Overview of the Cost Savings

Research shows that SAVR significantly reduces election administration costs.

  • Eliminating Paper-Based Registrations: Processing paper registration applications is extremely labor-intensive and expensive, as it includes data entry, following up with applicants on missing, illegible, or incorrect information, and paying overtime and additional temporary staff for the timely processing of thousands of paper applications before Election Day. Voters who are registered or have their registrations updated through SAVR will not need to submit paper forms, drastically reducing the number of hardcopy forms filed.
  • Reducing Undeliverable Mail: As the most robust methods for updating voter addresses, SAVR will update millions of voters’ information in advance of ballot mailings and other election mail, significantly reducing the number of mailings returned as undeliverable.
  • Reducing Same Day Registration & Provisional Ballots: SAVR ensures voters are registered at the correct address well before election day, avoiding the need for costly and time-consuming same-day registration and provisional ballots at the polls.

Estimated Savings from AVR Improvements in California, 2018 Election Cycle

Effect of SAVR Estimated Statewide Savings
Eliminating Paper-Based Registrations $8,243,201.52
Reducing Undeliverable Mail $508,130.02
Reducing SDR and Provisional Ballots $438,271.29
Total $9,189,602.83

Savings from Eliminating Paper-Based Registrations

Previous research shows that the costs of processing paper voter registration forms are significant. A 2017 study of the labor costs of full-time staff processing applications, following up with applicants about missing or erroneous information, and temporary staff processing applications placed the average cost of processing each paper form at $4.72. Notably, this estimate does not include the costs of printing voter registration forms, mailings related to duplicate registrations, and the postage of forwarding forms to the proper recipient, meaning that the true cost of paper forms is likely even higher.

SAVR has the potential to eliminate these costs by replacing millions of paper-based registration transactions. If an individual is registered to vote or has their registration updated automatically through a DMV or Medi-Cal transaction, no subsequent paper registration form with handwritten information is necessary to ensure a current and accurate registration.

The potential cost savings from eliminating paper registration forms are massive, as shown in the following table estimating the labor costs associated with paper registration forms for California and six counties of differing sizes in the State. We estimate that California counties spent more than $8 million on processing paper-based registration forms during the 2018 election cycle. The costs are significant regardless of county size. The State’s largest counties could save roughly $1,000,000 each election from eliminating paper-based forms, while even smaller counties could save hundreds of thousands of dollars if paper-based forms were reduced or eliminated.

Estimated Labor Cost of Paper-Based Registration in California, 2018 Election Cycle

Jurisdiction Total Registered Paper-based forms processed Est. Avg. Labor Cost per Form Est. Total Labor Cost
Statewide 25,103,559 1,746,441 $4.72 $8,243,201.52
Los Angeles 6,858,459 304,316 $3.45 $1,049,890.20
San Bernardino 1,141,892 256,077 $3.45 $883,465.65
San Francisco 691,315 96,480 $5.91 $570,196.80
Contra Costa 680,375 102,031 $5.91 $603,003.21
Tulare 209,464 30,115 $5.33 $160,512.95
Butte 148,710 37,588 $5.33 $200,344.04

The registration totals are drawn from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s 2018 Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS) data. We calculate paper-based registrations by considering the total number of registration forms received during the 2018 election cycle by mail, in-person or through third-party registration drives. Estimated average labor costs are drawn from the 2017 study estimating labor costs associated with paper forms and providing survey data of election officials in large, medium, and small jurisdictions.

Savings from Reducing Undeliverable Mail

SAVR can similarly achieve significant savings by reducing undeliverable mailings to California voters. As the most robust method for updating voter addresses, SAVR will update millions of voters’ information in advance of ballot mailings, significantly reducing the number returned as undeliverable. Similarly, SAVR will ensure that voters are registered with the correct information, as opposed to through paper forms plagued with mistakes and illegible and missing information. These complete electronic registrations prevent confirmation notices sent to voters regarding their registration status that are returned as undeliverable.

The following table shows the number of mail ballots and confirmation notices returned as undeliverable in the 2018 election, statewide and in five representative counties. If millions more voter addresses were updated in advance of the election through SAVR, these mailings would not be returned undeliverable, saving California more than $500,000.

Estimated Cost of Undeliverable Election Mail in California, 2018 Election Cycle

Jurisdiction Undeliv. Mail Ballots Cost ($2.12/each) Undeliv. Confirmation Notices Cost ($0.50/each) Total
Statewide 201,446 $427,065.52 162,129 $81,064.50 $508,130.02
Orange 34,257 $72,624.84 3,814 $1,907.00 $74,531.84
Santa Clara 22,589 $47,888.68 8,422 $4,211.00 $52,099.68
San Bernardino 7,002 $14,844.24 10,300 $5,150.00 $19,994.24
Stanislaus 4,439 $9,410.68 1,492 $746.00 $10,156.68
Sonoma 2,134 $4,524.08 6,686 $3,343.00 $7,867.08

This data is again drawn from the EAC’s 2018 Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS) data. Estimates from other states indicate that the cost of sending a mail ballot is roughly $2.12, and better records could save counties the cost of an undeliverable ballot. Similarly, we assume that sending each confirmation notice costs $0.50 based on printing, postage and processing costs. Notably, our total cost estimate is fairly conservative, as it does not address other election mailings returned as undeliverable, or mailings that reach the wrong voter due to out of date records.

Savings from Reducing Election Day Registrations

Unregistered voters and out of date addresses impose additional costs on election officials.  Voters who show up on election day without a proper and current registration must go through the same-day registration process, or cast a provisional ballot due to registration issues. Each of these creates significant expenses for election officials. Based on data from other states, processing each provisional ballot, including the cost of paper forms, signature verification, and labor, costs an estimated $3.89. Similarly based on survey information from other states with same day registration, we estimate that processing each election day registration costs approximately $1.35. When tens of thousands of voters register on election day or cast provisional ballots, these costs accumulate quickly.

SAVR has the potential to eliminate a significant share of provisional ballots and same-day registrations, and thus substantially reduce costs for election officials. The table below shows the number of same day registrations as well as the number of provisional ballots rejected for registration issues statewide and in five counties in 2018, according to the EAC’s EAVS data. We define registration issues as instances where ballots were rejected because the voter was not registered, registered after the cutoff date, registered outside the jurisdiction, registered outside the precinct, or where the voter’s registration had previously been canceled. Through SAVR, almost all of these voters would become registered or have their addresses updated to the appropriate jurisdiction or precinct prior to the election, rendering provisional ballots unnecessary. We estimate potential savings to California from reduced provisional ballots and same-day registrations of nearly $440,000.

Estimated Cost of Provisional Ballots and SDR in California, 2018 Election Cycle

Jurisdiction Prov. Ballots Rejected for Reg. Issues Cost ($3.89/each) Same-Day Registrations Cost ($1.35/each) Total
Statewide 100,116 $380,451.24 36,163 $48,820.05 $438,271.29
Orange 15,358 $59,742.62 3,192 $4,309.20 $64,051.82
San Diego 8,181 $31,824.09 2,353 $3,176.55 $35,000.64
Fresno 1,924 $7,484.36 1,223 $1,651.05 $9,135.41
Santa Cruz 904 $3,516.56 2,061 $2,782.35 $6,298.91
Monterey 717 $2,789.13 614 $828.90 $3,618.03

Conclusion

Although SAVR has implementation costs, they are far outweighed by long-term savings for each election. By eliminating hundreds of thousands of paper forms, reducing undeliverable election mail, and reducing provisional ballots and same-day registrations, we estimate that SAVR could save California county election officials more than $9 million dollars per election cycle.