A city councilor has proposed either eliminating municipal primary elections in Keene or raising the number of candidates needed to trigger one.
Councilor Randy Filiault, in an email Monday to his fellow councilors and Mayor George Hansel, requested that councilors and city staff discuss the value of municipal primary elections. He said they often don’t accomplish much, and at a cost of more than $12,000 this year, Filiault says may not be worth it.
“The past several primaries have done nothing more than eliminate a single candidate from the ballot,” Filiault wrote in the letter. “Such a process is clearly a waste of taxpayer dollars, a waste of City Staff’s time, and a waste of election volunteers’ time.”
The filing period for this year’s city election season ended last week, with only enough candidates for one primary election next month, though all candidates will appear on the ballot. In the contest for a two-year term as mayor between incumbent Hansel, Aria DiMezzo and Mark J. Zuchowski, primary voters will narrow the field from three candidates to two.
Filiault, a long-time councilor who is among eight candidates in this year’s councilor at-large race — three short of the number that would trigger a primary — said he’s been thinking about city primaries for a long time and watching how the last few have played out. He said if he’d known that only one primary would be required this year, and only to eliminate one person, he may have attempted to act sooner.
He also said that primaries typically aren’t a great representation of the city’s voters, noting that the number of people who participate is very low.
“When you look at the primaries now, the turnout is pathetic,” he told The Sentinel Wednesday. “I’m talking single digits.”
According to City Clerk Patty Little, the primary turnout rate was under 10 percent in 2011, 2013 and 2017, with rates of 3, 6 and 5 percent, respectively. The primary turnout was 11 percent in 2015 and 12 percent in 2019.
This wouldn’t be the only time city officials have re-examined municipal primaries.
Keene voters passed a charter amendment during the 2011 election that established a minimum number of candidates needed for a primary election. In the mayoral and ward councilor races, more than two candidates are required for a primary to be held. For councilor at-large elections, a primary is triggered if there are more than 10.
Since then, primary races have been triggered by just one candidate every city election year. There were 11 councilor at-large candidates in the 2013, 2015 and 2017 races, and 2017 also saw three candidates in the mayoral race and the Ward 1 and Ward 3 council races, according to Little. In 2019, there were three candidates for mayor and three candidates for Ward 4 councilor.
And there’s quite a bit that goes into that process, according to Little.
“The costs for conducting a primary would need to cover ballot coding, ballot printing, polling rental charge, election worker stipends, publication of notices, meals, supplies, postage,” Little wrote in an email. “This year’s budget includes $12,635 for the Municipal Primary.”
Little said 14 people for each of the city’s five wards are needed to carry out an election. They include elected officials — a ward moderator, a ward clerk, a ward supervisor of the checklist and three selectmen — as well as six appointed ballot inspectors and two appointed assistant supervisors per ward.
In order to change the city charter, where the process for holding municipal elections is codified, a ballot question would need to be put before voters during a regular general election. Because of the work that would be needed for such a change, Filiault said it would be good to start considering it right away.
His proposal is on the agenda for the council’s regular meeting tonight. He said he expects Mayor Hansel will refer it to a council committee or city staff for further consideration. Or it could be sent to a council workshop, he said, where councilors could dedicate some time to hashing out any concerns.
“We’re going to take our time,” he said. “There’s no rush here.”
This story has been updated to clarify information about which candidates will appear on the ballot during the Oct. 5 primary election.