How We See It: Election Fee Seems Reasonable Allocation Of Costs

Democracy isn't cheap.

Voting may be one of the most sacred civic responsibilities (or, at least, should be treated that way), but it isn't free. It takes money to have those election machines primed and ready for voters. Someone has to pay the polling place crews who whisk (hopefully) voters through the process.

What’s The Point?

The costs of elections must be spread out to communities benefiting from them. Runoffs, however, should be included in the costs for elections.

In Benton County, the Election Commission has voted to impose a $1,500 flat fee on cities, school boards or other entities requesting an election. The charge typically comes into play when an entity holds a special election, and is designed to cover the costs related to the programming of election software to facilitate the election. There are other costs that vary based on the size and complexity of the election, but this $1,500 fee would be in addition to those.

For years, the Election Commission has used a company called Election Systems and Software for programming, but has relatively recently taken that job in-house so election officials can be more nimble in responding to ballot needs. According to Kim Dennison, election coordinator, the county still pays the company for technical support, to the tune of about $15,000 a year.

Dennison said entities in the county typically total 10 elections per year, so she simply divided the annual costs for Election Systems and Software by 10. It's not the most precise application of cost, but it does allow public entities to have one more firm cost in hand when it comes to calling for a vote.

It's not the only way elections are funded. In Washington County, for example, there is no flat fee. The Election Commission charges for programming based on the hours its staff works on it. That might mean a bill of $400 to $500 a small city holding a simple election, but more if the election is more complicated.

Is Benton County's new approach fair? It certainly doesn't sound unfair, but fairness can be in the eye of the beholding municipality or school district.

The only concern about Benton County's $1,500 flat fee is this: Dennison said a school district, city or county would be charged another $1,500 for any runoff election required. Runoffs occur whenever there's a race with three or more candidates and nobody earns more than 50 percent of the votes cast in the initial election. The two who get the most votes advance to a head-to-head runoff.

Charging an additional fee for a runoff seems out of place. Runoffs are necessary to complete the election process. Indeed, the election commission cannot do its job of certifying an election until the runoff election is completed. In a very real and legal sense, the originally election is not complete until the runoff is decided. Communities shouldn't be burdened with additional costs simply because they get a healthy slate of candidates. Take Fayetteville's Ward 4 race this fall. Seven candidates filed for the seat being vacated by Rhonda Adams. It's virtually guaranteed a runoff will be necessary and that election will not be complete until someone earns more than 50 percent of the vote.

Taxpayers are well served by smooth-running elections. They require an investment of time and money. Benton County's proposal seems fair overall except for that runoff provision.

Commentary on 08/19/2014

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