In a period when there’s a disturbing effort in a number of states, New Hampshire among them, to curtail participation in the democratic process, it may seem odd to contemplate eliminating municipal primary elections in Keene. But the time appears ripe to study the issue, and Councilor Randy Filiault was right to bring it to the City Council’s attention.
The issue arises because, under the city’s charter, a primary is required prior to each contested municipal general election to winnow the field of candidates to, in effect, two per position. For mayoral and ward councilor contests, this means the two top vote-getters for each position advance from the primary to the general election ballot. In the race for the five at-large councilor seats, the 10 receiving the most primary votes move on.
The charter eliminates the need for a primary election if two or fewer candidates have filed for each mayoral or ward councilor opening or 10 or fewer have filed in the at-large council race. The charter provision is a sensible one and dispenses with the time, effort and cost of conducting a primary that wouldn’t eliminate any candidates.
Or perhaps it doesn’t. In this year’s election, not enough candidates have filed to run for the ward and at-large seats, so no primary will be held in those races. But three candidates have filed for mayor, and a primary will be held Oct. 5 so that the two top vote-getters will square off at the Nov. 2 general election. That’s desirable for electing a mayor by majority vote, but the time, effort and cost of running the primary remain, even though there will be no voting in any of the ward or at-large council races.
This led Filiault to write to the council last week asking it and city staff to discuss removing or “significantly” changing the charter provision, calling a primary election to eliminate a single candidate a waste of taxpayer dollars and staff and election volunteers’ time. City Clerk Patty Little says expenses for the upcoming primary are budgeted at more than $12,600. And because the mayoral race is citywide, all five wards must be staffed, requiring 14 elected and appointed officials at each.
In the context of the city’s overall budget, the relatively modest primary expense may well be justified to ensure city voters have the best process for electing their representatives. Still, every municipal election year since the current charter provision took effect in 2011 has required primary races — but only to eliminate a single candidate in each one. Clearly, a re-examination of the process is called for, even if it ultimately confirms the current system is best.
One alternative that might be studied, currently in use in Concord mayoral elections, would flip the process and, instead of a primary, require a subsequent run-off election among the top two vote-getters in the general election — if no candidate garners a majority vote. This would limit the need for a second election to only when voters haven’t indicated a clear preference. Another approach that might be considered is ranked-choice voting, such as Maine has recently adopted, where general election voters rank candidates by preference and a weighting process determines the winner. That may prove cumbersome but would eliminate second-election costs and effort.
If any change is to be made, it will require a city charter amendment, which must go before voters at a future general election. Filiault’s proposal has been referred to the Oct. 14 Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee meeting and deserves a close look.