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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Tiny Towns, Expensive Elections, St. Louis County Report Shows

Posted By on Tue, Aug 2, 2011 at 12:30 PM

There are exactly 1,653 registered voters in the tiny municipality of Bel Ridge, Missouri. And so when the village decided to hold a special election in February 2010 to increase property taxes, the proposition was bound to be expensive on a per-vote basis.

The St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners had to print ballots. They needed to get voting equipment to the polls. And, of course, they had to staff those polls -- with eight poll workers required in the one location chosen for Bel Ridge. All that when just 11.4 percent of Bel Ridge's already small voter base -- or 200 people -- bothered to cast a ballot.

Total cost per ballot cast? $22.52.

The new biennial report from the county's board of election commissioners is now out (you can download a copy from the agency's website). There aren't many surprises here: Missouri's largest county has remained mostly Democratic, even while trends over the two-year period covered in the report have Republicans picking up seats elsewhere in the state. And, of course, turnout in these non-presidential years isn't great -- the highest turnout of the eight election dates included in the report was November 2010, when just over half (55.8 percent) of registered voters in St. Louis County made a trip to the polls.

Overall, the report finds, the board of election commissioners has done a good job keeping democracy affordable. The cost per registered voter was the same in November 2010 ($1.51) as it was in the mid-term general election in November 2006 ($1.52).

But it's those little special elections where the per-voter cost goes way up, as Bel-Ridge's February 2010 election shows. Yes, the total cost of that day's activity was only $4,503 -- but $22.52 per ballot cast still seems galling to us. The August 2009 election, in which University City and Berkeley both voted on sales taxes, was almost as bad -- $12.94 per vote, in an election when just 8.69 percent of registered voters bothered to show up. Of course that day's $38,522 cost pales in comparison to $1.02 million spent on the November 2010 election, but it definitely seems like more of a waste.

Let's be clear: We're not saying the board of elections should do things more cheaply. And we're not saying the secret is fewer elections (although we know municipalities often try to sneak tax increases past voters by scheduling the vote for a low turnout day rather than waiting 'til the midterms -- we're looking at you, U. City).

We're saying the problem is the area's notorious balkanization. We've got 91 municipalities in St. Louis County alone! And as the election board's report makes clear, lots of them are ridiculously small -- so small they make Bel Ridge look like a bustling metropolis. There are actually nineteen municipalities in the county with fewer than 500 registered voters.

Here are the ten smallest municipalities in St. Louis County, along with their total number of registered voters per the most recent report. You tell us: Does this system make any sense?

10. Huntleigh -- 303 registered voters
9. Twin Oaks -- 294
8. Westwood -- 256
7. Vinita Terrace -- 200
6. Kinloch -- 196
5. Bellerive Acres -- 176
4. Glen Echo Park -- 134
3. Country Life Acres -- 92
2. MacKenzie -- 91

and the smallest municipality in St. Louis County is...

1. Champ -- 9 registered voters

Wouldn't you just love to be the mayor of Champ, Missouri? If you can get your vote, along with your wife's, you probably could! As long as you can hold the turnout to 20 percent, that is...

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