Opinion: Is adding early voting sites growing government or providing a service?

Staff File Photo / Election official Kelly Beltinck, center, and Election deputy David Torbett unload a truck while setting up for early voting at the Brainerd Youth and Family Development Center in October 2020.

"Did we just grow government? Did we just add people and money to the budget, mid-year?"

District 4 Hamilton County Commissioner Warren Mackey asked the questions Tuesday after the commission approved taking more than a quarter of a million dollars out of the county's fund balance for the Hamilton County Election Commission to add three new early voting polling places for the 2022 elections and beyond.

After commissioners looked to each other for a response to Mackey, it fell upon Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger to offer an answer.

The action is growing government in a sense, he said, but it's growing government to offer the services citizens say they need.

Republicans - and Coppinger and six of the nine commissioners claim that brand - like to say they favor smaller government. We say that, too. But rarely does government ever get smaller. Budgets don't shrink. Staffs are rarely sliced. Programs linger, often past their useful life.

The commission itself is growing. Commissioners voted last month, with the increase in the size of the county in the decennial census, to increase their numbers from nine to 11. That also means two more school board members and all the accoutrements that go with two more members in both bodies.

Today, the most we can hope for governments is that if they must grow, that they grow responsibly. Not fund what they don't need. Don't sink money into unproven programs. Get bids. Pay as you go. Keep a healthy rainy day fund.

The dilemma at Tuesday's meeting was whether the county should wait until its fiscal 2023 budget to fund the election commission's request of $259,000 or take money out of the county's balance and fund the request at mid-year.

If the county funded it in next year's budget, the new sites could be ready for the November 2022 election, elections administrator Scott Allen told the commission. But he said election commissioners preferred to have everything in place for one election cycle - primaries in May, primaries and a county general election in August, and a statewide general election in November.

The commission, as a rule, doesn't like to take money out of its fund balance at mid-year, District 3 Commissioner Greg Martin reminded his colleagues. It sets a bad precedent, he said in so many words.

Commissioners offered sympathy to the thought but believed the service warranted the change.

In the back-and-forth discussion, Coppinger - well before Mackey's question - said, "You're growing government by adding people, and I know you know that. And there's always apprehension when you're growing government. But this accommodates the public ... I support it with a lot of apprehension because I don't like increasing budgets that you can't pull back."

District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe asked what the county's fund balance was - $120 million - and how many people the polling places would serve - some 30,000. Given those numbers, he appeared to do some ciphering to attempt make a point about how little would have to be spent to serve so many people.

In the end, he said: "I'm just entertaining myself here, I guess. It's about $10 per vote, countywide, and in these new locations we're estimating about $6.67 per voter. It's just a little ... something I wanted to know."

The vote on the resolution to use the fund balance passed 7-2, with Martin and Mackey voting against it.

Then, before a vote on purchasing the specific items that would be needed to staff the early voting sites, Mackey asked his question, though Coppinger had as much as answered it earlier.

"I was trying to get in to make sure I heard ... [that] I understood what just happened," the commissioner said. "It does demand some answer in the sense - did we grow government just now?"

So Coppinger tried again.

"The short answer is yes," he said. "The long answer is ... we're also doing what government is supposed to do. We're providing a service ... This commission determined the service was needed, and that's kind of how government works."

Once upon a time in Hamilton County, there was no early voting, and people still voted in healthy numbers on Election Day. Then there was early voting at just a couple of sites. Then a couple more sites. Now there will be seven.

"We try to make everything convenient in this world," Martin said during the discussion.

"Voters like consistency," Allen, the elections administrator, said.

Indeed, everyone likes convenience and consistency - until they're asked to pay more for it.

In this case, with a new census dictating new commission districts, new precincts and new voting places, it seems the right time and the right thing to do to align everything at once.

At least until the next mid-year request comes up.