LACONIA — On the recommendation of City Clerk Mary Reynolds, the City Council will consider modifying the procedure for conducting municipal primary elections or doing away with them altogether. The City Council this week referred her proposal to its Government Operations and Ordinances Committee for study and a recommendation.
In 1995 voters amended the City Charter to eliminate partisan elections, in which party caucuses nominated the candidates for mayor and city council, and instead hold primary elections to choose the two candidates who appeared on the general election ballot. Primaries for city offices are held in September of odd-numbered years.
In a memorandum to the council, Reynolds explained that since the change was introduced, relatively few primary elections have been contested and very few voters have cast ballots. For example, in 1997, when the first primary was held, only one candidate entered the primary for City Council in each of the six wards and only two candidates entered the mayoral primary. With no contested races, just 7 percent of registered voters went to the polls.
In the eight primary elections between 1997 and 2011 voter turnout has averaged 9 percent. In 2001, when turnout reached a high of 18 percent there were four candidates for mayor, along with five city council candidates in Ward 3, three in Wards 4 and 5 and two in Ward 6. In three of the past eight elections — in 2003, 2009 and 2011 — primary elections were held even though there were not more than two candidates for either mayor or any of the six council seats. In 2011, only 259 of 8,422, or 3 percent of registered voters went to the polls, just 21 of them in Ward 2 and another 22 in Ward 5, at a cost to the city of approximately $39 a vote.
Last year when there were three candidates for mayor but no more than two for any of six city council seats the turnout was six-percent.
Along with the mayor and city councilors, primary elections are also held to nominate candidates for the the seven seats on the School Board, whose members serve staggered requiring a primary every year, and three seats on the Police Commission.
Reynolds said that cost of conducting municipal primary elections is approximately $8,600, which does not include about $1,000 for police details at the polling stations at Woodland Heights Elementary School and Laconia Middle School. The cost consists of $3,900 for printing ballots, $1,000 for materials at polling stations and $3,700 in wages of poll workers.
Laconia is one of three of the state's 13 cities to conduct municipal primary elections. In both the other two — Manchester and Keene —the charters authorize the city clerk to deem a primary election election unnecessary if no more than two candidates file for any particular office.
To spare taxpayers the cost of elections that more often than not are unnecessary Reynolds proposed either adopting the procedure followed by Manchester and Keene or abandoning primary elections entirely. She told councilors that if they choose to act on her recommendation an appropriate amendment to the City Charter would be put to the voters at a special municipal election on Tuesday, November 4, 2014, the date of the general and School Board election. If voters approved, the primary election process would either be discontinued or modified in 2015.