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Elections getting more complicated, pricey for townships

Redistricting, annexation, ballot secrecy and the cost of holding elections have become fairly familiar themes for the Hubbard County board.

To date, county board districts have not been redrawn, but that could change.

"I might run for mayor," county board chair Dick Devine recently joked. If a proposed annexation of the Discovery Circle neighborhood into Park Rapids takes place, Dist. 2 Rep. Devine could wind up in District 3, currently represented by Greg Larson.

"Annexation was supposed to have been done by May 1," Devine said. "It's gonna screw up the voting."

"Our plan must be approved by May 8," said auditor Pam Heeren.

But most annexations occur at a glacial pace, and the city will not have annexed the neighborhood by the May deadlines to redistrict county seats.

Commissioner Greg Larson suggested leaving the district lines where they currently are to reflect the status quo.

"It's the city limits as they exist today," he said.

Devine agreed.

Heeren said ultimately it will have to change. Leaving the District 2 boundary lines where they are now would split the city's third precinct, which would violate election law.

n The cost of elections, even off-year elections, is burdening some townships, commissioners discussed. Since the congressional redistricting, four townships in the county's northeast quarter have each gained a small precinct of reservation land.

Farden, Lakeport, Hart Lake and Steamboat River townships will now have two precincts, 5A and 2A. Heeren said.

"They can combine their polling place but they'll have two separate ballots for the legislative parts."

The number of ballots is becoming more challenging with each redistricting. Hart Lake now encompasses three school districts, two state senate districts and the two new legislative districts, giving a possibility of seven different ballots for voters. Thorpe Township has four school districts.

Heeren and commissioners have heard there are difficulties and expenses incurred in recruiting and training election judges. Many have regular jobs they have to take time away from.

"We can by law do mail balloting for townships that have 400 voters or less as of June 1 in each election year," Heeren said, and send all registered voters a ballot.

It would be on an opt-in basis only, she added.

"It's very comparable to what you'd get if you had an absentee ballot but you don't have to apply for it with mail balloting. So everybody in Steamboat River that's registered would get the appropriate ballot. Then all they have to do is vote and send it back to us. So they wouldn't have a polling place on Election Day. If you were a new voter in Steamboat River you would have to come into our office or make application in order to get a ballot."

Mail balloting could cut some of the costs townships incur, commissioner Lyle Robinson said.

"Thorpe, it seemed to me, Thorpe said they were paying $3,700 for theirs and the county does it for about $600," Robinson said of election expenses. "We can probably do it for $1,000 but that would still be a hell of a bargain. Most of them come in ahead of time and vote anyway."

The board asked Heeren to compute the cost of mail balloting, which the county has not offered since 2006.

Robinson wants that cost passed directly to those affected townships without impacting other residents.

Heeren said in the past, only four townships have taken that option.

"We only had four townships that did it," she said. "Most of them want to do their own elections. We had Hendrickson, Clay, Steamboat and Thorpe when we did it before."

And polling places cannot close their doors early even if all registered voters have come through the doors by 9 a.m.

Of the county's 34 precincts, 22 might be eligible for mail balloting, Heeren said.

n The smaller precincts afford no ballot secrecy, Heeren noted, and that has been a major concern of election reforms in the wake of the protracted 2008 Minnesota Senate race.

If only a handful of residents vote in any one precinct and those votes are tallied, it doesn't take rocket science to match up voters with votes.

Heeren said the ballot sanctity issue in sparsely populated areas is unavoidable.

For now no foreseeable changes are in the works. Heeren said the current districts didn't vary in population by more than 10 percent, which would trigger a redrawing of boundary lines.

And so far Devine hasn't mounted his campaign for mayor. But it would allow him to reach a trifecta of government service. He's served on the school board and county board. What's left?

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

(218) 732-3364