The primary cost

Despite low turnout, cities cite benefits for primary elections

by Aaron Brom

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Few people go to them, and yet thousands of dollars are spent on them.

So the question remains, “Why must cities conduct primary elections?”

Of course there are many reasons. Locally, like in Rogers, the slate of city council candidates is reduced to a more manageable level for the November general election. In Albertville and St. Michael, primary voters reduced the slate for a county commissioner’s seat.

And other races, much larger in prominence like state senate and U.S. senate, are on the ballot as well. Yet statewide turnout for primary elections remains at a measly 14% of eligible voters.

Despite such low numbers, city clerks in Albertville, Corcoran, Rogers and St. Michael each cited other primary election benefits.

Albertville City Clerk Kim Olson said cities budget once for elections, rather than separating the primary and general election costs. Albertville budgeted $9,000 for the 2012 elections.

“Every time we have a primary, it’s really the same as a general election,” Olson said. “We still have election judge training, we still have the (judge) hours.”

Only 7 percent of eligible Albertville voters turned out for the primary.

“We’d love to see more people take part in the primary,” she said. “We have judges ready to help. Judges have to go through every step they do for the primary as they do for the general election.”

The city of Corcoran also budgeted $9,000 for elections. Corcoran City Clerk Jeanie Heinecke also said that, despite the low primary voter turnout (9 percent in Corcoran), “The primary does have value. You have to look at it from the big picture.”

That big picture includes valuable training, since there are many duties judges must rehearse, such as for greeting, registration, rosters and passing out stickers. Heinecke said state statute requires cities have a minimum of four judges at each precinct, and also to have judges from different declared parties.

For example, not all judges could be a Republican or a Democrat; there must be representatives from each.

“Primaries are a very good training ground for the general election, especially this year for the presidential election. We’re going to have a lot of traffic. It gives our judges an opportunity to have a dry run so that when we come to November our customer service will be high.”

Rogers City Clerk Stacy Doboszenski said Rogers, with two precincts, budgeted about $12,000 for elections this year.

“In the primary you have to do everything you do for the general election,” she said. “You have to have all the judges there and do all the public notifications.”

Thus, she said lower voter turnout doesn’t cost the city a penny more than if a big group turned out. About 14 percent of registered Rogers voters took part in the primary.

Even if primaries were no longer required, Doboszenski said judges would still have to be trained, and other costs, such as ballot supply, would still have to be budgeted.

“In the primary, we have judges working half days,” she said. “I do pull back my staffing knowing the turnout isn’t going to be as large.”

In St. Michael, with its larger population and two precincts, city clerk Diana Berning said the city hires 100 election judges. For the primary, she scheduled 40 judges.

“I always go through and pick judges (for the primary) who don’t have experience in the past,” she said. “It’s good practice for them, slower than the general election. We make sure to put the new people out in the primary so in the general election they know what to do.”

Berning said St. Michael’s low turnout, under 6 percent, meant sending some judges home early. St. Michael budgets $18,500 for the 2012 elections, including for ballots and machines in addition to judge pay.

Judges don’t make a fortune, typically earning about $9 per hour, but Berning said they are valuable because they want to be a part of the civic process.

“We have a pretty active community that likes to serve in that capacity,” she said. “Without them, the lines would be longer.”