Cost of US midterm elections soars to £1.4bn

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The Independent US

The midterm elections will not only be the most expensive ever of their kind in the US, underlining both the high stakes on 7 November and the sheer cost of a modern American political campaign. They will also take place amid continuing fears of voting problems in almost a dozen states.

In a study released yesterday, the watchdog Centre for Responsive Politics estimated the total bill for the election at $2.6bn (£1.4bn), up from $2.2bn for the mid-terms in 2002, and exceeded only by the $4.2bn spent in 2004, which was also a presidential election year. The 18 per cent jump over four years comes despite new restrictions on corporate and union donors.

The figures dwarf campaign spending in a British general election - the nearest UK equivalent of the midterms, in which all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and one third of the 100 Senate seats are being contested. The general election in 2001 for, instance, cost a mere £26.7m, the UK's Electoral Commission has reported.

The new study here confirms the immense fundraising advantage of incumbents, with sitting House members raising on average more than three times as much as their challengers - even in a political climate where incumbents are in greater jeopardy since 1994, when Republicans captured 52 seats held by Democrats.

Once again Republican interests, including not only candidates but also party committees and conservative interest groups, are likely to outspend their Democratic counterparts. But in a year when significant Democratic gains are expected, the gap is comparatively narrow: $1.4bn (£750m) against $1.2bn.

The biggest donors are the usual suspects - lawyers and unions for the Democrats; Wall Street and corporate America for the Republicans (although the latter are hedging their bets, given the widespread expectation that the Democrats will wrest control of the House in a fortnight's time).

"The industries and interests funding the 2006 election have been big givers for years, and they are building on their influence now. They're making an investment that they hope will pay off once the 110th Congress takes office in January," Sheila Krumholz, the centre's research director, said.

Soaring campaign spending, however, has done nothing to remove the voting problems which have plagued US elections since the infamous 2000 presidential vote when the outcome in Florida - and President Bush's overall victory over Al Gore - had to be settled by the Supreme Court.

A study this week by the non-partisan Election-line suggests that 10 states are vulnerable to such difficulties, stemming from the introduction of electronic voting machines which critics say are inaccurate and not secure, and a spate of litigation over election rules. The states in question include Maryland, whose first electronic elections in September's primaries were "dismal," according to the 75-page study, as well as Pennsylvania, Indiana, Arizona and Ohio - most of them states with vital House and Senate contests, whose outcomes could be exceedingly close.

The chaos in Florida six years ago led Congress to pass some reforms. But ultimately it is up to the individual states to decide what voting technology they want to employ. The change to electronic machines has caused particular concern, since in many cases they have no back-up paper record of a vote.

There have also been disputes over whether in a really close vote, the electronic or paper record should be the basis of a recount.