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Erik Burgess, Published November 02 2013

Moorhead city election schedule put up for vote

What’s on the ballot?

The following “yes” or “no” question will be on the Nov. 5 ballot in Moorhead:

Shall the below described amendment to section 4.01 of the Charter of the City of Moorhead be adopted?

Section 4.01. Regular Elections.

The regular city election is held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of each odd even numbered year at the place or places designated by council resolution.

A “yes” vote means city elections will be held on even-numbered years starting with the next election cycle, and incumbent terms could be extended by one year.

A “no” vote keeps city elections on odd-numbered years.

MOORHEAD – When voters go to the polls here Tuesday, they’ll have to ask themselves: Is it worth thousands of dollars to hold city elections on odd-numbered years?

A ballot question proposed by the city’s Charter Commission will ask if residents would prefer to have city elections on even-numbered years, lining them up with school board, county, state and federal races.

The heart of the Charter Commission’s argument is cost. The average city election in Moorhead costs about $16,172, a number that will certainly increase if Minnesota switches to electronic poll books, which are already being used in North Dakota.

The new e-polling system Minnesota is considering for future elections could cost Moorhead $125,000 for the machines alone, plus a recurring cost before each election of $10,000 to $30,000 to reprogram the machines, said Lori Johnson, Clay County auditor.

But many City Council members have argued that keeping city elections away from the partisan politics of state and federal elections is worth the cost. Citing such concerns, the council voted down an ordinance last summer that would’ve changed city elections to even years. The idea got only one “yes” vote on the eight-member council, from Luther Stueland.

The charter commission decided this year to bypass the council and bring the matter to a public vote. A simple majority of 51 percent is needed to change city elections to even years, and if approved, the change would go into effect next election cycle.

Proponents of the status quo – including mayoral candidates Mike Hulett and Mark Hintermeyer – have argued that city issues, if moved to even years, would be relegated to the bottom of a longer ballot.

But Charter Commission member Jim Danielson, a former member of Moorhead City Council, argues the city could save $80,000 in five years without off-year elections.

“That can be used to make our election process even more effective,” Danielson said, “and some of those funds can be transferred to other important community issues.”

The average even-year election costs $27,552, according to the city clerk. Per voter, the average cost of a federal/state election is $1.61. An average city election costs $3.94 per voter.

When it comes down to a “yes” or “no,” dollars saved might be the argument that makes the most sense for voters, said Barbara Headrick, chairwoman of the political science department at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

“If you can save a little money not having another election, I think, at times, Moorhead would like that,” Headrick said.

Of the 50 cities in Minnesota with 20,000 to 100,000 people, Moorhead is one of only 12 that hold city elections on odd years. Duluth is another.

If the elections are moved to even years, state law states that the term of the incumbent is extended to the subsequent even-numbered year, unless the council passes an ordinance saying otherwise.

Voter turnout an issue

If elections are moved to even years, Headrick said she can only guarantee one thing: More people will come to the polls.

Moorhead had a 72.5 percent turnout in the 2012 presidential election, a 55.9 percent turnout in 2010 and a 72.8 percent turnout in 2008, according to the city clerk. Only 17 percent showed up at the polls for city elections in 2011, 36.1 percent in 2009, and 16.6 percent in 2007.

City elections in Fargo are held in June of even years. Despite low turnouts, Fargo City Commissioners Brad Wimmer and Mike Williams said their system allows voters to focus on city issues.

“Obviously the more people you have vote, the better the system works,” Wimmer said, “but I think the people that want to vote in a city election will get out and vote.”

But Headrick said when more people vote, you “more accurately catch a representation of the people in the area.”

Danielson, a retired MSUM political science professor, said with fewer voters, “more conservative” voices tend to be the ones who are voting.

Because of such low turnout in the off years, Headrick doesn’t think city issues would be diluted in an even-year election.

“They might get bigger play, actually,” because more voters are paying attention, she said.

Off-year elections also put a strain on city staff, who struggle to find volunteers to work the polls, said Richard Bolton, Charter Commission chairman. The city spends 352 staff hours every odd year on elections, according to the city manager’s office.

Bolton said the “philosophical arguments,” such as if city issues will be diluted on a longer ballot, are legitimate.

“But the material and the personnel arguments have to be considered, too,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518