The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

January 29, 2013

District 19A special election is costly

NORTH MANKATO — State Rep. Terry Morrow's resignation from the House and the Democratic Party's tardiness in scheduling its endorsing convention could result in well over  $70,000 in unexpected costs to local governments.

The Feb. 12 special election to fill Morrow's vacant House District 19A seat and Tuesday's special Democratic primary election have to be conducted under the same rules as a presidential election. Despite generating a tiny fraction of the voters seen on Nov. 6, the special elections use the same polling places and staffing levels as a presidential election.

Blue Earth County Elections Director Patty OÕConnor said she and other elections officials suggested to Secretary of State Mark Ritchie during a recent visit that low-turnout special elections should have different rules.

"It was like, "'Why can't we do these by mail? This is crazy,'" O'Connor said.

State law requires that a special election be conducted in the same places under the same rules as the previous general election. For instance, all three counties needed to have their elections offices open for five hours on Saturday -- staffed by at least two workers -- for people to vote absentee in Tuesday's primary.

So how many absentee voters showed up at the Nicollet County courthouse during those five hours?

"I think we were at five," said Nicollet County Auditor Bridgette Kennedy.

Voting rates were higher than one per hour Tuesday, but not by a whole lot. After more than eight hours of voting, one upper North Mankato polling place had received 28 ballots. Another, in the seventh hour of voting, had 20.

 North Mankato City Clerk Nancy Gehrke, predicting turnout of 5 percent or less for the primary, wondered before the election if costs could be cut but was told that election statutes don't allow it.

"Could we consolidate our precincts? No," Gehrke said. "Can we have less than four judges because we know there's going to be so few people? No."

North Mankato is the biggest city in District 19A, which includes all of Nicollet County and small parts of Blue Earth and Le Sueur counties, and -- along with Nicollet County -- is taking the biggest financial hit. Gehrke estimates that Tuesday's primary election will cost the city about $5,000 with the Feb. 12 special election costing another $5,000, mostly for paying election judges and feeding them lunch.

Counties are responsible for the cost of ballots, the programming of ballot-counting machines and voting machines available for people with disabilities, the transportation of that equipment to polling places, the collection and counting of ballots on election night and more. Kennedy estimates the two elections combined will cost Nicollet County between $15,000 and $20,000. O'Connor said she hasn't calculated the cost for Blue Earth County, which has just seven precincts in District 19A, but said it will be "a few thousand dollars."

Kennedy and O'Connor said much of the cost of elections falls on cities and townships, who must pay the election judges and offer varying hourly rates. A couple of precincts provide for balloting only by mail, but if the remaining precincts faced the same per-precinct costs as North Mankato the expense of each of the two elections for cities and townships alone would top $25,000 across District 19A.

Combined with the county costs, the two elections would top $70,000 -- none of it included in local government budgets because those were already set for 2013 when Morrow announced he was resigning his seat to take a job in Chicago.

The costs would have been cut nearly in half if a primary election hadn't been required. That was the case in another special election being held Feb. 12 in the St. Cloud area, where another lawmaker resigned after winning the Nov. 6 election.

The primary in District 19A also would have been avoided if the Democratic endorsing convention had been held three days earlier. At that Jan. 19 convention, Clark Johnson was endorsed  and the other three Democratic candidates suspended their campaigns in deference to the wishes of party activists.

But the convention was held three days after the deadline for candidates to pull their name from the ballot, so the primary was necessary to reduce the four Democrats to the one who would advance to Feb. 12.

Kennedy and O'Connor offered similar responses when asked for thoughts on the Democrats missing the deadline for avoiding a primary election.

"I don't have any comment on that," O'Connor said. "I've made much comment. But none to you."

Kennedy added: "I can't have opinions -- not publicly, anyway."

They are allowed to have opinions about potential changes to election law, and both said they hope Ritchie will push the Legislature for new rules allowing for more cost-efficient special elections.

In the meantime, O'Connor had the authority to make one adjustment in the name of saving a few bucks. With just seven precincts and so few voters, she decided staff would hand-count the ballots rather than paying a contractor to program the vote-counting machines for Tuesday's election.

And Gehrke made one change, too. She couldn't reduce the number of polling places or the number of election judges, but she dropped her personal rule for general elections that the judges must be ever-vigilant. On Tuesday, they were allowed to read a novel or bring in a book of crossword puzzles to pass the time between the appearance of voters.

"Otherwise, my God, they'd fall asleep," Gehrke said.

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