LACONIA — The Government Operations and Ordinances Committee of the City Council last night agreed to direct the City Attorney to draft changes to the City Charter that would either eliminate primary elections altogether or authorize the City Clerk to declare a primary election unnecessary if no more than two candidates file for any particular office.
City Clerk Mary Reynolds initiated the proposal in response to the cost of conducting primary elections, at which very few voters cast ballots.
Once the proposed amendments to the charter are drafted, the committee will present a recommendation to the City Council, which will decide whether to begin the process of amending the charter, which includes a holding public hearing on the proposed changes and placing the question on the general election ballot in November.
The Government Operations and Ordinances Committee is chaired by Councilor Ava Doyle (Ward 1) and includes Councilors David Bownes (Ward 2) and Armand Bolduc (Ward 6). None of the committee members expressed a position either for or against eliminating or changing the primary election process.
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, 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 6 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 terms, 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.
When the committee met Bownes said he had received a phone call from former mayor and councilor Matt Lahey, who he described as "very much opposed" to eliminating or changing the primary process. Lahey, he explained, considers "the costs of holding the primary minimal compared to the possible consequences of doing away with them."
According to Bownes, Lahey harkened back to the election of the "Straight Arrows," claiming it proved "contentious and costly." His fear, Bownes continued, is that without a primary two "reasonable people" could file for office and a third candidate of "a particular persuasion" could join the race. The two like-minded candidates could split the vote, leading to the election of "a radical, a candidate who doesn't really represent the views of the a majority of voters in the ward."
In other words, Bownes said that Lahey believes that without a primary there is a risk that two-thirds of the vote could be split two ways, enabling a candidate representing a minority perspective to win the election.
"I'm just expressing a point of view," Bownes insisted. "I'm not sure where I come down this."
Bolduc countered that holding a primary would not prevent a minority candidate who mounted an aggressive write-in campaign from winning a general election against one or two declared candidates on the ballot.
"Write-in candidates," Bownes replied, "are different animals."