8th district election cost could approach $1 million

Friday, December 14, 2012

Nearly 1 million Missouri taxpayer dollars could end up going to pay for a special election to replace U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson.

The estimate -- $951,654 -- from Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan's office is based on the cost in the 30 counties of the 8th Congressional District for the 2012 February presidential preference primary. The total cost of that election was about $7 million and included all of the state's 114 counties, where about 8 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

Gov. Jay Nixon is charged with setting a date for the special election in which voters will choose who to succeed Emerson, who was elected to her 10th term in Congress in November. On Dec. 3, she announced her intent to leave office in February to become president and CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a group that advocates for the interests of rural electric cooperatives and public power districts.

Costs associated with the special election will be paid from the Election Subsidy fund, which receives cash transfers from the state's general revenue fund, according to Carnahan spokeswoman Stephanie Fleming.

If the governor chooses to set an election date that coincides with other issues on ballots in local communities, the cost would be split between the local governments and the state.

Staff in the governor's office declined to discuss in specifics whether election cost would factor into the date Nixon chooses, or if the special election would be part of an already-scheduled election.

"Because we're still two months away from what is generally understood as the date when the seat would become vacant and a lot of things could happen before then, it's really premature at this point for us to be talking about possible considerations in selecting a special election date," said the governor's spokesman, Scott Holste.

The special election date will not be set until after Emerson formally resigns. She has said her last day in office will be Feb. 8.

Costs by county will vary according to the size of the registered voter roster of each. In Cape Girardeau County, the special election could cost around $60,000 for slightly more than 53,000 registered voters, if the selection of a new representative in the 8th District is on the ballot alone, according to county election supervisor Joey Keys. The estimate is based on the cost of past elections. Scott County Clerk Rita Milam estimated the special election would cost her county between $30,000 and $35,000.

Political committees in the 8th District will choose candidates to run in the special election. Numerous Republicans and a few Democrats have expressed interest in being nominated by their parties' committees.

A special election will need to be paid for regardless of voter turnout -- but predicting how many people will participate in the special election will be a tough call, said Jeremy Walling, a political-science professor at Southeast Missouri State University.

Even though the cost is based on the presidential preference primary held earlier this year, the two elections are not comparable in terms of turnout, Walling said.

Voters came out at the lowest-ever percentage in the preference primary; some political observers claimed voters' perception of the importance of the election was to blame. The event was referred to as a "beauty contest" and "expensive poll," since members of the Missouri Republican Party voted in 2011 to move to a spring-start caucus system to comply with new party rules and avoid losing delegates to the GOP national convention. Meanwhile the legislature could not eliminate the primary because of a veto of a bill by the governor.

"The issue there was that it was widely publicized that people knew that it wasn't really going to count. So I think that really suppressed turnout," Walling said. "People are going to recognize that [the special election] is not the same thing."

The political atmosphere leading up to the special election may have a great effect, Walling said.

Dominance by Republicans in the 8th District during the past 30 years Jo Ann Emerson and her late husband Bill Emerson served in Congress may make some Republican voters believe there is not much need to head to the polls for a special election; assuming the person the GOP committee chooses will end up the district's next representative, Walling said. Democrats may believe there is little reason to go to the polls since Jo Ann Emerson was able to win election after election to become Missouri's longest-serving member of Congress.

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

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