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More "Fun" with Special Elections: Minnesota 19A Special Primary

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[Image courtesy of gis.leg.mn]

Yesterday, there was a special primary election in State House District 19A located in south central Minnesota. Voters were choosing a DFL (Democratic) candidate to run on February 12 to fill the vacancy created when State Rep. Terry Morrow resigned to take a job in Chicago.

Special elections are always challenging for election officials, given that they disrupt the normal calendar - but this election was especially disruptive for a number of reasons that resulted in a vote that was relatively costly for the number of voters who ended up participating. From the Mankato Free Press:

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 ...

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.

In some ways, this problem is the flip side of situations like those seen in Anchorage in Spring 2012 and in Hawaii in November 2012; unlike there, where officials failed to ramp up the availability of ballots and workers to meet increased voter demand, Minnesota officials aren't allowed to scale down to meet a lower anticipated turnout. Such inability to calibrate capacity to demand ends up costing localities what, for them, turns out to be serious cash:

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.

It didn't help, of course, that the special primary was necessary because of circumstances outside the election officials' control - and it's pretty easy to read between the lines to understand how they feel about it:

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."

If nothing else, this situation appears to be sparking interest in a discussion about the calibration problem in a place where it needs to happen - the Legislature: "[election officials] are allowed to have opinions about potential changes to election law, and both said they hope [Secretary of State Mark] Ritchie will push the Legislature for new rules allowing for more cost-efficient special elections.

That didn't mean, however, that the affected officials didn't use their time-honored ingenuity in dealing with the unexpected vote:

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 [North Mankato Clerk Nancy] 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.

Election officials and poll workers in special elections across the nation would likely agree - while special election day might be sleepy, planning for (and dealing with) them keeps election officials up at night. Here's hoping the Legislature will consider finding ways to allow for better calibration of capacity to demand.

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