Townships get reprieve on state election mandate

Minnesota townships have been given a two-year reprieve from a state election mandate that many small townships couldn't afford to meet and were at risk of violating.

Minnesota townships have been given a two-year reprieve from a state election mandate that many small townships couldn't afford to meet and were at risk of violating.

During the special legislative session this week that dealt with flood relief for southeastern, lawmakers also approved a bill to give townships until 2010 to meet a requirement to use electronic equipment designed for voters with disabilities for their March election of officers.

If the bill hadn't been approved it would've cost $1.6 million for townships to hold their elections this March, said Kent Sulem, general counsel for the Minnesota Association of Townships.

The financial burden would've been a "tough deal" for the state's smallest taxing entities, he said.

Sulem said a shortage of Automark voting machines in the state would have also made it difficult for many townships to meet the legal requirements under the Help America Vote Act.


"There would've been serious complications if that mandate had not been relieved," he said.

When the federal voting law was implemented in Minnesota, townships were encouraged to share polling places for state elections to reduce the number of Automark machines the state had to purchase.

Sulem said that past cooperation by townships would have been penalized by forcing townships to buy their own voting machines before the 2008 March election.

The new legislation "relieves an unfunded mandate," said Sulem.

Getting the bill approved in the special session involved more than a little politicking.

Rep. Bud Heidgerken, R-Freeport, had been trying for several years to get the bill passed. Even though there was bi-partisan support for it, the legislature adjourned before the bill could be taken up this spring.

Because the ballots for the March township elections are prepared in January, Heidgerken said the issue couldn't wait for the 2008 session, which begins in February. That's why he was forced to be more than a little persistent during the special session, which Gov. Tim Pawlenty had wanted to limit to the single issue of flood relief.

Pawlenty initially denied Heidgerken's request to bring the bill to lawmakers during the one-day special session that focused on emergency funding.


Heidgerken said he argued that the financial and legal threat to townships constituted an emergency. He also said the flooded townships in southeastern Minnesota could hardly afford the added cost of meeting the requirement, especially when at least one Automark machine had reportedly been swept away in the flood waters.

The mandate had the potential of preventing townships from being able to operate. "It would tear apart some of the fabric this country was built on," he said.

Besides reluctance from the governor's office, Heidgerken also had resistance from Republican leaders. No one objected to the bill, said Heidgerken, but political procedure was getting in the way.

"We went back and forth," said Heidgerken. "It was a long day, let's put it that way."

Eventually, the bill passed unanimously in the Senate. There were two no votes in the House.

The next phase is to get a permanent solution approved by the legislature.

Heidgerken said he and Rep. Bill Hilty, D-Finlayson, have worked out an agreement with advocacy groups for people with disabilities that would place an Automark voting machine at a county office for township elections that would be used similar to absentee ballots. Other township voters would continue to cast paper ballots at their town halls.

Usually, only a handful of voters cast ballots during the township elections, where one supervisor and either the clerk or treasurer are elected each year.


Heidgerken said he expects the legislature to take action on that bill next year.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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