If you've looked at a newspaper or news website in the last day or so, you most likely know that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has decided to hold a special election in October for Frank Lautenberg's Senate seat. You may also know that some people (read: Republicans) are not too thrilled by this. There's also a chance you've seen this number: $24 million. According to the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services, that's about how much holding two special elections (one primary, one general) will cost New Jersey.
What exactly are New Jersey taxpayers buying when they pay for a special election? At his press conference announcing the special elections on Tuesday, Christie said, "I don't think you can put a price tag on what it's worth to have an elected person in the United States Senate." Well, here's a quick breakdown of the cost, based on fiscal year 2013 estimates from New Jersey's Office of Legislative Services, obtained by the Huffington Post.
- $5.4 million: The approximate cost for poll workers' salaries per election. This number is based on the 6,542 polling places in 2013, the minimum number of workers per polling place (four), and the $200 salary for poll workers. The cost would be divided between the counties and the state.
- $6.5 million: The approximate cost for "ballot printing and postage, processing, legal advertising, polling-place rental, and voting-machine delivery" per special election.
- $11.9 million: The previous two numbers added up to get the total cost per special election.
- $23.8 million: The number above multiplied by two—one for the August special primary and one for the special general election in October.
Even if you disregard the $11.9 million for a special primary election that was bound to happen regardless of when Christie decided hold a general election, the remaining tab for the special election that didn't quite have to happen is still, on its face, rather large. It's something you're going to be hearing about a lot, especially if Christie decides to run for president in 2016.
But is there an upside to the price tag? To state the obvious, the U.S. economy is still in a rough patch. And although New Jersey's economy is growing, the state isn't in the clear quite yet. So can putting $200 in the pockets of 26,168 poll workers—one time for the primary, and one time for the general—give a stimulative jolt to the Garden State?
Tracy Gordon, a fellow in the Economic Studies program at the Brookings Institution, isn't too willing to throw out the s-word. She notes that if you look at New Jersey's gross state product for 2011—the last year for which data is available—you see that the cost of one special election makes up just .0025 percent. "It's a drop in the bucket in terms of the overall size of the economy," Gordon said.
At the same time, Gordon notes that poll workers could fit into the group of people who are otherwise income- and credit-constrained and could use the $200 per election—and may then send that money back into the state's economy. And while the $200 may not sound like much, it's not so far out of line with the amount of money typical of tax rebates.
"At various points we've given people tax rebates of $500 and expected a big bang for the buck," said Gordon. "But these poll workers are not a very big part of the economy."
For stimulus to work, it's not necessarily the size of the check that matters most, but the number of people the checks are going to. With an estimated 26,168 poll workers per election, out of a civilian workforce of about 4.6 million people in the state, the special elections will hardly make a massive stimulative impact on New Jersey.
So while holding these special elections may work out for Christie politically in the short term, he'll have little hope of being able to help justify the cost by saying that his gambit did anything to boost the state's economy.