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2008 Election Costs

2008 Election Costs

October 24th, 2008  · stk

A comparison of Canada's 2008 election and that of the United States - what it cost each country to elect a leader. (Hint: Record amounts set by both countries). Shouldn't it be less expensive to elect public officials?

Canada & United States - Cost of the Election

Comparing Canadian and United States politics is bit like comparing grapefruits and tangerines. They're both fruit, citrus even, but also very different. In one respect though, Canada and U.S. are the same - they'll both spent record amounts in their 2008 elections.

It's a travesty that each election should consume ever more energy (time, material and money). It'll be a relief when they're finally over.

For a comparison on election costs between Canada and the United States, carry on ...

Canada 2008: Most Spent, Same Result

Canada spent roughly $300MM for their 2008 election, which took place on Tuesday, October 14th. It pales in comparison to the money spent by their southern neighbor, but one must keep in mind that the 2008 election was their third election in four years (compared to two for the United States). The 2004 and 2006 elections cost Canadians $277MM and $270MM, respectively.

Adding insult to injury, the 2008 Canadian election saw little change in the overall party makeup in Ottawa. Stephen Harper's Conservatives will make up, yet again, another minority government.

To further illustrate the disconnect between election spending and relevancy, the 2008 Canadian election saw the lowest voter turn-out in history. Only 59% of eligible voters bothered to cast their ballots, continuing a slide of voter apathy that's continued since the 1980's (source).


U.S. 2008: Most Spent, No "Change" There

Both U.S. candidates talk about it being a "time for change". It's practically Barrack Obama's campaign slogan and with the economy collapsing, a buzz-word embraced by the John McCain camp. However, in the area of election spending, there's no change by either candidate - the 2008 election will be the most expensive in history - continuing the same old trend.

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics has estimated that more than $5.3B will go toward financing the federal election which will culminate on November 4th. Ouch! They estimate that the presidential race alone will take up about half of that. (source)

Worse yet, is that it'll be the first time that presidential candidates will have raised and spent more than $1B in an effort to secure the top job. This nearly doubles the amount from the 2004 election and triples spending from the 2000 election. (source)

In looking at U.S. voter turn-out, however, the United States could take a page from Canadian politics. Even though fewer voter-eligible Canadians turned up to vote than ever before, their poor turn-out exceeded every U.S. Presidential election except three (1960, '64 and '68 - which were all in the very low 60% range). Like Canada, voter apathy has recently set in: 2004 (55%), 2000 (51%) and '96 (49%) round out the recent elections. (source)


When Will this Election Spending Madness Stop?

I'm not much of a political animal and you won't find much political discusson posted on It's such a contentious and debatable topic that I don't think it's worth the effort. It doesn't help that I hold most politicians in distain, knowing that they pander to public opinion, special-interest groups and either don't know enough to make the "hard decisions" or are so afraid of voter reprisal that they won't make them. Ultimately, no matter who wins the election, it'll still be "a politician".

Politics aside, I am aghast at the amount of resources that are consumed by each successive election. It's most easily measured in terms of money, but that doesn't take into account the total energy outlay. Time: - dedicated by reporters, supporters, bloggers, media staff, writers, pundits, local party representatives, security, vendors, printers, cleaning staff and untold others; Material: - banners, pins, signs, cups, food, gasoline, planes, cars, golf carts and other items used and/or consumed; and Money: paid by special interest groups (ultimately consumers), public funds, private funds and given by people who are barely able to make ends meet in an already shaky economy.

The amount of energy that goes into electing public officials is ridiculous, unecessary, wasteful and unsustainable.

If the candidates are running on a platform of "change", the first change I'd like to see is for them to agree to change the election process itself. Sadly, I see no change ... just (a lot) more of the same.

Why not have the election consist of a series of nationally televised debates, with salient questions? Eliminate the annoying, misleading, negative ad campaigns (that don't have much of an effect anyway). Stop printing banners, buttons, signs and other media that ultimately are dumped into already brimming landfills. Stop the - "which party can raise the most money wins" - mentality. Focus on the necessary and the important - the candidate's stand on the issues. Keep the election simple - save all that energy (time, material and money) for other, more concrete and lasting goals.

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1.flag Danny Comment
Voter turnout in the US is projected to be very high. If the primaries were any indication it will be a record-breaking year for turnout.
2.flag stk Comment
Agreed that turnout will likely be high. I bet history will show it to be a spike though, and not a trend reversal, because 2008 is a watershed election - the first with a black man running for president. ;)

Regardless, it's the ever-increasing amount of resources consumed by electing public officials that disturbs me.
3.flag John Comment
I agree with this post in full.
It's the same in Australia and I think there are a few very related issues...
1. Media : Elections are a ratings bonanza and they have a vested interest on that point ( Advertising ), let alone their own idealogical/financial bent ( Fox News ).

2. We, the public, have let it happen.
If we, as voters, demanded a limit to the duration, expenditure etc then it would be pegged. Trouble is, ruling Parties always use their power to push though bills that allow "additionals".

3. We have fallen for the idea that politicians are so important.
They are short term public servants and should stop carrying on as though they are more than a cog in the wheel of the Democratic process.

I'll take a guess that public education and public health budgets have been reduced in Canada and the USA, just like in Australia.
Yet, the cost of putting politicians in power increases at an astounding rate.
Give me health and education before expensive media spinning elected public servants anytime.
It's not an easy job, it's an essential job however they need to know what their getting into and accept caps on their costs and their election campaigns.
4.flag stk Comment
Well said John!

(You can guest post here anytime). :p
5.flag EdB Comment
The 1.5 billion figure for "presidential race" is a bit misleading. I mean, going back to January 07 means including all the boys and girl(s?) that wanted to get their party to pick them to run for POTUS.

It still seems like a lot of money, but it ain't. Compare 1.5 for POTUS or 5.3 for all elected positions to 700 for a stop-gap measure to prop up a dying economy, and the US annual budget exceeds a trillion bucks. I have no idea how many zeros a trillion has. Anyway taken as a number "5 billion" sounds pretty big but relatively speaking it ain't spit.

More debates would be awesome, except the debate process in the US is pretty much owned by the political parties so why not let 'em spend the money on commercials everyone can laugh at? The League of Women Voters gave up on hosting debates when the current system came into being because the current system caters to the limits and restrictions the candidates put in place. So yeah more debates would be awesome, but ONLY if they are administered by non-party groups willing to fund them. That'd be if you're curious.

Plus I dunno about Canada, but in the US you simply can't restrict someone's right to say what they want to about an issue. If that means me spending a bazillion dollars to say "vote for me" then so be it. No tax dollars go into funding US elections. All of it, including the 84 million McCain got from the government to fund his campaign, is voluntarily contributed.

BTW Barack Obama is NOT the first black person to run for POTUS. He is the first nominated by one of the two major political parties, but Shirley Chisholm, Senator Carol Moseley Braun, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton all ran for POTUS.

Anyway so what's the alternative? Spend nothing so no one knows anything of the candidates?

I've always wondered why I don't get a tax break for voting. Seems to me if I got a tax deduction equal to 1 percent of the poverty line in any given year simply by showing proof I voted the turnout would go through the roof. Candidates can't buy a vote, but the system can reward me for taking part.

And how come election places of methods change each election cycle? We've got a million billion gazillion Federal and State buildings in this country but we vote in a willy nilly hodge podge of places and methods. So stop that. Fix it so that everyone could easily know "go there to vote" no matter where you happen to be and what election happens to be happening.

6.flag stk Comment
EdB - LOL. You've just provided good proof of why I don't like to talk "politics".

1) The $1.5B figure misleading? Nope. Inclusive. As it should be.

2) Presidential election -vs- bailing out the economy? Hardly an apples-to-apples comparison. Better: 2008 election spending -vs- 2000 election spending (up 3X). Why? (BTW, $1.5B IS a lot of money and there are 1,000,000,000,000 -12 zeros- in a trillion).

3) "spending a bazillion to say 'vote for me' then so be it": wow, you actually endorse the election spending arms race. :| Of course it's possible to cap election spending. Makes more sense to me than a free-for-all money race with candidates beholding to donating special interest groups.

4) "No tax dollars" - LOL. Glad that makes you feel better. At the end of the day, collectively, taxpayers pay for the cost of the elections. Whether it comes out of the box marked "taxes" or some other box - marked "gasoline profits" or "utility payments" - is academic.

5) Yes @ black candidate. I figured that people would understand what I meant - first black candidate front-runner, nominated by a major political party (i.e., first black with an actual chance of winning). Guess not.

Alternatives include: Campaign spending caps; Grass-roots dissemination of (objective) information about the candidates; Voter books that feature each candidate in a structured way, with platform responses on each issue; Set number of televised political debates; and oodles of other ideas that help to pare down the costs for interviewing the job candidates.

Politics isn't an exact science and as such, is meant to change. We need to change the way public officials are elected. Too much energy, time and money is spent in the election process. It's increasing each election and getting completely out of hand. Dunno about tax-breaks for voters, but yes, the actual voting process is archaic and needs revamping and standardization as well.
7.flag EdB Comment
"Election arms race"? OMG please be serious. Like, an election is all about a group of people discussing and deciding. An arms race is all about governments convincing people that 'other people' are somehow evil and we have to find/fund more ways to kill them than they can kill us.

Anyway yeah if politics (beer, pot, hookers, lotteries, athletes, actors, entertainers, whatever) is what someone wants to spend their hard-earned money on then why should they not be allowed to? Again: no tax dollars are spent on politics in the US (unless a taxpayer chooses to allow tax dollars to go that way - see the footnote).

A spending cap might be tolerable in Canada (different culture & rule book eh?) but is anathema to the American way of life. Free Speech is the thing. McCain is under a cap of 84 million due to accepting public financing, but Obama decided to not go that route and therefore can spend as much as he can raise or simply has. And holy crap he has raised more money than any politician ever in the history of man. Is that bad? Before you answer let me also ask is it bad that actors and athletes make HUGE sums of money for either pretending to be someone else or for playing a game? Perspective eh?

Suppose I had money. Suppose I supported Joe Blow for the President. Could I for some reason NOT give him 2300 dollars of my money to buy advertising and so forth? I mean, like, I totally know Joe is "the man" and can't wait to see him be president. But I know most folk ain't heard of him and really want to help spread the word. So I have bumper stickers and a yard sign and talk to all my friends and neighbors, but still can't I do more? Why should I not give him some money to campaign with? BTW 2300 is the maximum any citizen can donate to any candidate. I might also give a million dollars to a group that is NOT my candidate but happens to want to see my candidate win. That would be a "527" group. An example of a 527 would be the "Swift Boat Veterans" who basically sank Kerry's shot at the White House.

The thing is as a private citizen can't I spend my money as I see fit? I bought yellow paint for the interior of my house. And brown. Should I be denied these options? What if instead of painting my house I sent a politician a check for a hundred bucks. Should I be denied that option? Or maybe I spend it on the theater. Or sports. Or teenage hookers.

Governments make decisions that affect the lives of everyone. And like it or not, the US Government makes decisions that affect the lives of billions of people on this planet. Far above the population of the USA, our continent, our hemisphere. So what is finding the so-called "leader of the free world" worth? Ten bucks? Fifty bucks? A million bucks? Point eight billion bucks? Sorry, but like it or not, whoever leads the USA will (still) have a profound effect on most of the nations on our planet. Isn't it worth it to try to make sure the bastard isn't totally fucking crazy?

To my mind, one tenth of one percent of a nation's budget to find someone most capable of leading the single most powerful nation on the face of this planet is chump change - AND IT DOES NOT COME OUT OF THE BUDGET!

Maybe Canada is different. Maybe all politics in Canada is somehow funded by the taxpayer. If that was the case in the US I'd be mighty pissed, but it isn't. People choose to spend their money going to concerts, seeing movies, going to sporting events, and donating to politicians. Okay cool: it is your money so do with it what you choose.

Is there something wrong with letting people spend their money as they see fit to spend it?

BUT wouldn't it be great if a politician could do time for endorsing a message that happens to be a flagrant lie? Currently in the US there is no mechanism by which a candidate can be punished for an intentionally misleading and factually wrong advertisement. Bummer there, no doubt.

FOOTNOTE: the "public funds" McCain accepted actually do come from tax dollars. It is the ONLY time a US citizen gets to say where their tax dollars go. You can check a box (that defaults to unchecked because they pretty much make it for printing on paper) that says you want $3 of your tax bill going to the fund that pays out monies to candidates that accept federal money ... and therefore limits. Never in my life have I checked that box. By the way I'm pretty sure that fund is broke and actually can't pay McCain's campaign the money they promised him. Dunno what happens when the bills don't get paid. I suppose someone gets a taxpayer funded bailout ;)

It's all good though. Canada is cool. The US needs to import some cool from Canada. Neil Young ain't enough is the thing.
8.flag stk Comment
EdB - "Election Spending Arms Race" is a metaphor, a figure of speech. That you took it literally says something, just not sure what.

You know, I hear you on scale. Sure, the bailout of the economy is $700B, the GNP of America is roughly $13 Trillion (2006 est) and high-end rock stars, Hollywood actors and sports stars have multi-million-dollar salaries. There's lots of things that involve more money than election spending - the military budget, freeway building and maintenance, NASA and the space effort and so on.

None of these things have anything to do with the cost of electing public officials. That's what this is about. Just because something else involves lots more money, it isn't an argument that it's OKAY that the 2008 election spending is three times more than what it was for the 2000 elections.

Yeah, the President's job is important and the decisions made in America have world-wide repercussions. Sure, we should find the best man for the job. If I felt that we were finding the absolute best person for the job, I might even think the money spent for the 2008 elections WERE worth it. But I never feel that way. Barrack and McCain aren't the best two people - in a country of 305 million - to lead, they just happen to be the 2 that the major parties picked.

For one thing, they're both politicians. It takes a certain kind of person to be a politician and nominated as a front-runner. Those qualities aren't necessarily the same qualities required to make the best decisions in the Oval office, as President. The two tasks require different skills. Just because you're good at the one, doesn't automatically make you good at the other. (That's generally the whole "history will tell" bit, because it's a recognition that we won't really know, until after the fact).

I've already provided my generalized view of politicians, so I don't need to rehash that. Hopefully, whoever wins this election will surprise me and do a great job as the leader of the United States. I'm not holding my breath.

But I digress. At issue is the cost of the election. Why should this election cost 3X more than in 2000? Is this election for President three times more important than in 2000? No. Are things 3X more expensive than they were in 2000? No. Are there problems with candidates receiving money that comes from special interest groups, with strings attached? Yes. Does there seem to be an end to this trend? No. Should something be done about this? Yes, I think so. Do I know exactly what that something should be? No.

I do know that comparing the cost of electing a public official has nothing to do with bailing out the economy, exhorbant salaries of sports stars and actors (and yeah, I think there's a problem with that too - i.e., misplaced values of our society - but that's a completely different debate). Just because other things cost a lot more or involve more money, it's hardly justification for spending more on something else. If we took that argument for each financial decision, the federal budget would be even further out of whack.

Yeah, people should be able to spend their money as they see fit, but there are bounds. For one thing, money donated to candidates isn't "their own" and as such, it's given with a certain understanding of how it will be spent. Imagine the fervor it would cause if a candidate suddenly decided to buy a lavish house with the donated money, or a fleet of fancy cars. "Hey, it's my money to spend as I see fit, right?" (I think you know what I mean, so don't take this literally ... it's just an exaggerated example, to make a point).

Hey, can't we just agree to disagree. We're Americans, right?

Oh and speaking of Canadian Neil Young, the irony of the metaphor I used, is that Neil Young is mentioned in the definition that's linked. Don't forget other 'cool' Canadians: Alex Trebek, Michael J. Fox, Pamela Anderson, Nelly Furtado, Howie Mandel, Joni Mitchell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Priestly, Diana Krall, Steve Nash, Shania Twain, Keanu Reeves, Martin Short, Dan Ackroyd, Matthew Perry, Alanis Morissette, Mike Meyers, Bryan Adams, Jim Carrey, Jack Kerouac and Sarah McLachlan ... just to name a few. :p
9.flag Danny Comment
I donated a small amount of money to the Obama campaign and I'm volunteering time to the campaign. They have a staffer for my county so I'm helping her enter data about voter contacts and I'm taking off election day to help get out the vote.

You have to admit that the sheer number of people who have donated to his campaign is a positive thing. Rather than a small number of rich donors, he has a large number (over 2 million, I link) of small donors. If he's beholden to donors, at least there's a metric ass-load of them.

So, I'm not that worried about the amount of money. Most of it goes to tv ads. I suppose we could ban political ads from television like some countries do. That wouldn't bother me too much, but I doubt it ever happens. Obama's real skill has been the ground game. He's opened more offices and hired more staff than any campaign in history.

If you had suffered through 8 years of having George Bush as your leader, you might be singing a different tune. I don't agree that the two candidates are essentially the same. On several issues that are important to me, they are very different. Preemptive war, for example.
10.flag stk Comment
Danny - As far as I'm concerned, there's no better way to donate than with your time. ;)

Actually, your comment reminds me of one of my ideas for cutting back on election costs - only allow donations from people that vote (i.e., private citizens). No organizations, unions or other special interest groups.

I think we've all suffered, over the past 8 years ... and I think there's more to go. The US has a horrid foreign policy record, is embroiled in too many overseas conflicts and -yes- the economy sucks.

I don't think I said that the two candidates are the same (other than both being "politicians"). I hope your take on Obama is right, since I'm fairly certain he'll win. He sure has used the Internet & garnered a ground-swell of support. Lord knows, it is time for something other than "Washington politics as usual". Maybe he's the ticket. Even if I were to disagree with your choice, I wouldn't fault you for your considered decision and thought you've put into it.
11.flag stk Comment
Regarding U.S. voter turnout for the 2008 election ... keep your eye on this page ... (WikipediA graph of voter turnout in each United States presidential election since 1824).

Despite predictions of a "record turnout" for the 2008 presidential election, roughly the same portion of eligible voters went to the polls in 2008 as in 2004. As an aside, the 61.7 percent voter turnout (2008 estimate) pales in comparison to voter turnout percentages from the 1800's (e.g., 81.1% in 1860).
12.flag Andrew Comment
There's too much money in the politics of both countries. It's all about campaign finance reform. Bring down the amount parties can raise, and you'll bring down the disgusting show of power private interests have in the United States.