Editor’s Note: This is an installment in our occasional series, It’s Your Money, that looks more closely at public expenses that taxpayers may not realize they’re being asked to pay.
It cost taxpayers at least $11.5 million to close state and county government offices, schools and the University of Hawaii on Election Day.
One major reason for closing down public institutions is so that people can vote. Hawaii is one of only eight states in the country where Election Day is a public holiday.
And the trend has only gotten worse. This year, just 62 percent of Hawaii’s registered voters, or about 437,000 people, voted. That’s nearly 20,000 fewer people casting ballots than in the 2008 election — the one that put Hawaii’s native son, President Barack Obama, in the White House for the first time.
The general election was declared a public holiday in 1915, historical records show, in part so that public schools could serve as voting sites. But other states manage to use schools as polling sites without closing them for elections, and Hawaii also uses other venues, such as churches as polling stations. Hawaii is the only state to hold its primary election on a Saturday, when schools are already closed.
Hawaii, like most other states, also has a “time off for voting law” that requires an employer to give you two hours off on Election Day in order to vote. However, if you take the time and then don’t vote, your boss can deduct those two hours from your pay.
Over the past 100 years, the cost of a shutdown has climbed into the millions as state, county and university employment has increased.
The state, counties and university together employ roughly 70,000 people. Most public sector employees are paid to have the day off. And government workers who don’t — those in core services such as public safety and wastewater treatment — earn holiday pay.
Most state and county agencies were able to provide only an estimate of what it cost to shut down government for a day, but said they don’t keep exact figures. That raises a question they couldn’t answer of how they account for their budgets at the end of the fiscal year.
Kalbert Young, director of the state Department of Budget and Finance, gave a wide range — between $5 million and $7 million — as the daily cost of state workers. He stressed that his figure was simply an estimate, based on savings associated with state furloughs.
“There really is no way for me to know or even estimate what the payroll was,” he said, noting that it’s nearly impossible to determine the hypothetical compensation of “people that should’ve been working.”
But he said the state saved about $88 million each year by furloughing state workers one day a month. And, in theory, the cost of a paid holiday equals the amount the state saves from one furlough day.
About 45,000 full-time employees work for the state.
The University of Hawaii did not provide an exact cost for Election Day but said that its payroll for one day — including salary and fringe benefits — is approximately $2.1 million. That represents an average of payroll for work days in the Nov. 1 to Nov. 15, 2012 pay period and covers 8,657 full-time employees.
Honolulu city officials said the approximate cost of a one-day holiday is $1.7 million. Honolulu’s payroll includes approximately 10,500 employees.
Hawaii County spokesman Ilihia Gionson said that the cost to the Big Island would likely be around $465,000. That figure includes approximately $359,000 paid out to employees who had the day off and $105,800 in holiday pay for about 2,400 employees who didn’t.
The calculations are based on the costs associated with a recent weekday holiday, said Gionson.
Kauai County’s Finance Department estimated that it would pay out about $296,000 to its 1,200 employees for the general election holiday.
That number is based on how much Kauai paid its workers on the Labor Day holiday and doesn’t account for any personnel or schedule changes that may have occurred since then.
David Underwood, deputy director of Maui County’s Personnel Services department, declined to provide cost figures. He said he didn’t feel comfortable coming up with an estimate so soon after the Nov. 6 holiday. The county employs about 2,500 people.
David Young, an information specialist in the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s research and economic analysis division, said that calculating the cost of Election Day is difficult.
The amount paid out to public employees who had the day off was offset by a number of factors, including savings gained from leaving the air conditioning and lights idle, he said.
“It’s like a house,” he said. “When you’re not going to be in the house you could say you’re wasting rent, but your bill’s also going to be lower … It’s the small but ancillary things that come into play.”
Young also noted that the day is inevitably a paid holiday for a significant segment of the public sector: teachers. Elections require large public spaces, and venue options would be limited and expensive if it weren’t for schools, he suggested.
“If you didn’t have public places, where would you go to cast ballots?” he said. “We count on our school properties to be so multi-purposed.”