Election issue could end up in court

Jefferson City officials are contemplating whether to place two charter amendments on the ballot dealing with February elections. But questions remain as to whether the county and state will allow it.

At its Feb. 19 meeting, the City Council will take action on two bills: one would place a charter amendment on the ballot to allow for elections in February, while the other would place a charter amendment on the ballot to eliminate the need for a primary election.

City attorney Drew Hilpert has said having the option of a February election could be useful in annexation proposals, saving the costs of putting the issues on the August or November dates where the total bill for elections are typically larger.

But Cole County Clerk Marvin Register said using the February date for anything but a bond issue is not allowed by the statute that took effect last year.

State law took away February primary dates, except in cases where a charter city specifically required a February election in the city charter. Because Jefferson City’s charter does not specifically require a February primary, only that a primary election must take place, the council set the primary for March.

According to section 115.123 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri, “bond elections may be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in February, but no other issue shall be included on the ballot for such election.” The statute also states public elections may take place when “expressly provided by city or county charter.”

“If you do February elections ... I’m going to tell you no, because the secretary of state says no,” Register said at Monday’s City Council meeting. “So we’re probably going to wind up in court.”

Hilpert said he has not spoken with the Missouri secretary of state’s office yet to find out if the city can hold other elections in February, but he does not doubt Register’s word of the office’s interpretation. The concern, he said, would be if the city winds up in court if something is placed on a February ballot and loses.

Liz Abram-Oldham, communications director for the Missouri secretary of state’s office, said though the statute specifies only bond measures on a February ballot, it’s really up the cities to decided whether they can change the charter to allow other measures on the ballot.

“If they find that they have the authority to change the charter to allow for something other than bond measures, they can do that and if they don’t, then they can’t,” Abram-Oldham said. “At this point, the statute does just say only bond measures so, unless they find some other authority within their city charter, then that’s probably all that’s allowed at this point.”

Hilpert said if the city does amend the charter to add the February date, nothing says they have to use it. But if at some point, it becomes clear that cities with that date in the charter are able to use it, then Jefferson City will be ready, he said.

The council needs to make a change because the March primary date creates some difficulty as the ballots for the April general election are printed before the March date. Another issue is that absentee voting is allowed six weeks before election day, which means absentee voting would begin before the primary has been held.

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