The special election to replace Tim Murphy in Congress after his fall from grace will likely cost Washington County taxpayers more than $100,000.
That’s the estimate Elections Director Larry Spahr gave last week after county commissioners learned of an $87,990 software licensing agreement with Dominion Voting Systems of Denver, Colo.
Because there will be an additional election in 125 of Washington County’s 176 voting precincts in addition to the usual countywide primary and general election, a third of Dominion’s total, or about $29,000, will be devoted to the special election.
Larry Spahr, county elections director, said about $4,000 or so will be paid to those delivering voting machines to the precincts for March 13 contest, and logistics and analysis – accuracy tests of each voting machine – that usually costs $59,000 for two elections will also be about one-third more than usual for the year.
Other election-related costs include staffing precincts, hiring temporary help, renting space for polling places, printing absentee and provisional ballots and other materials.
Washington County Controller Michael Namie, at the request of the Observer-Reporter, pegged the total cost of the November 2017 general election at $266,571 conducted in 176 precincts. The figure does not include in-house costs, such as voting machine storage or salaries and benefits of the five full-time elections office staff.
Apportioning this cost over 125 precincts in Washington County that are part of the 18th Congressional District brings it to $1,515 per precinct.
Allegheny County has 253 of its 1,300 precincts participating while Westmoreland has 193 of 305 and Greene will be deploying people in half of its 44 precincts.
The Washington County elections office was actually receiving phone calls Feb. 13 from people who went to vote but found no electioneering. They checked with the elections office to inquire if their polling place had been moved.
Elections office workers suspect the date of the 13th resonated in voters’ minds.
And while the temperatures may be warming, “snowbirds,” retirees who head south for the winter, are figuring in the special election in a big way.
The Washington County elections office has sent out 250 absentee ballots just three days last week.
“Usually the snowbirds are back in time for the primary,” said Melanie Ostrander, assistant elections director, of the May – or, in presidential election years – April event.
The last day to have a request for an absentee ballot in the elections office is March 6 and the last day to return a completed ballot is March 9. Each of these dates carries a 5 p.m. deadline, and if requests and civilian ballots don’t meet them, postmarks just don’t cut it.
The date of the election for Murphy’s successor was chosen by Gov. Tom Wolf.
The winner of the special election is expected to serve for the remainder of this year.
Republican State Rep. Rick Saccone of Elizabeth Township, Democrat Conor Lamb of Mt. Lebanon and Libertarian Drew Gray Miller, a Pittsburgh attorney, are running to succeed Murphy, who resigned after it became known he, an outspoken opponent of abortion rights, urged his mistress to seek an abortion during a pregnancy scare.
Murphy’s final day as a congressman was Oct. 18, and after that date, his committee’s campaign expenditures included such entries as $826 to the U.S. House Gift Shop for “donor acknowledgements,” $91,550 in refunds to donors and political action committees, and $40,500 in donations to other politicians and political organizations.
The base salary for a member of the U.S. Congress is $174,000.
Murphy was elected in 2002, and his campaign committee had more than $1.27 million in the bank as of the end of 2017.
Asked if the counties could recoup the cost of the election from Murphy, Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi, a Democrat who ran against the incumbent congressman in 2012, said, “I don’t see that as an option. I think it’s a Constitutional mandate once the office is declared vacant. I don’t think there’s any recourse.
Holding a special election in conjunction with a primary holds down the cost, but Maggi said Murphy’s Oct. 18 resignation left too long of a gap due to a legal requirement between that date and the regularly scheduled May 15 primary.
“The timing mandate did not reach the primary,” said Maggi, who is also chairman of the county’s election board.
He noted Murphy resigned rather than was removed from office, and questioned whether that would have made “a difference in the legal interpretation when trying to recoup losses.”