Benton County Eyes Special Election Limits

BENTONVILLE -- Benton County officials say limiting special elections will cut costs and increase voter awareness.

The Quorum Court's Legislative Committee has included limiting special elections to no more than two days a year on its "wish list" of topics to be brought up in next year's regular session of the state Legislature. An effort was made to put limits on special elections in the 2013 session, but the bill failed.

At A Glance

Special Elections

Benton County’s Legislative Committee has included limits on special elections in its legislative agenda for 2015. The panel had planned to meet June 30 to discuss the agenda with area lawmakers, but that meeting was postponed when Gov. Mike Beebe called for a special session of the Legislature. Tom Allen, committee chairman, said the meeting hasn’t been rescheduled.

Source: Staff Report

"I am positive there's going to be some legislation introduced this next session," Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, said Monday. "There was a lot of discussion about it last session. Some legislation was introduced that failed due to problems related to having school board elections on general election days."

Douglas said coupling annual school elections with bi-annual general elections could cause a variety of problems.

"First, you've got school elections every year, not just in general election years," he said. "Then, the school district boundaries don't match up with cities, quorum court districts or legislative districts. The number of different ballots you would have to have to make that work is almost incomprehensible."

Douglas said questions of fairness were raised if some school board candidates faced voters at a general election while others ran in elections that generally garner less attention.

"Some of those candidates in general election years would be facing 10,000 voters, whereas, the next year that lucky candidate might have five people voting," he said. "That's not quite fair."

Kim Dennison, the county's election coordinator, said Benton County had a special election in February for a county ambulance funding plan, which was rejected by voters, and another special election in April for a seat on the Siloam Springs Board of Directors that required a runoff in May. The Rocky Branch special election to place fire dues on property tax statements is being held today, and another special election dealing with funding for police and fire pensions in Bella Vista is set for Sept. 9. Those were in addition to the May party primaries and runoff elections, the annual school board elections in September, with possible runoff elections, and the general election in November.

Last year, Dennison said, Benton County voters went to the polls eight times, and, in 2012, county voters had nine elections to consider.

Dennison said consolidating special elections into one or two days a year would make it easier to prepare for, but election days would be more hectic.

"It would make the prep work much easier, but those election days would be a lot longer for us," she said. "They could possibly be countywide with several different elections on the same day."

County Judge Bob Clinard said he has heard the conventional wisdom that special elections can be more favorable to getting proposals approved by voters. He said he's not sure that's true, but even if it is, he thinks limiting the number of special election days is a good idea.

"I've heard that theory, but primarily what I've heard about has to do with school millage elections and city bond issues," he said. "They feel like they have a better chance of getting it passed if there's a smaller turnout."

"I'm all for limiting the number of elections," Clinard said. "At times there are needs for special elections due to timing issues, but for the most part, we need to do away with special elections. Benton County is working now to have a special issue for ambulance service at the general election. That's planning ahead, and that's what it's going to take to eliminate these special elections."

Tom Allen, justice of the peace for District 4 and chairman of the Quorum Court's Legislative Committee, said the panel remains interested in pushing for legislation to limit the number of special election days.

"I think it's definitely still an item of interest, but we've got to be prepared," Allen said. "It's so complicated with all of the laws and the different jurisdictions."

Allen said consolidating special elections would save time, work and money for the county and for the entities calling for the elections.

"I wouldn't say it's a waste of money, but it's totally inefficient no matter who's paying for it," he said. "It seems like it's got to be both time and money better spent to have it on one or two days every year."

Douglas agreed the consolidation of special elections would make the election process more efficient and less expensive. He said it might also increase voter awareness and participation.

"I think it would be helpful if we had one day in the spring and one day in the fall for special elections," Douglas said. "That way everybody knows if there's going to be a special election it's going to be this day. I know it would make the process work better and be cheaper, too, if everybody knows that's the date."

NW News on 07/08/2014