LACONIA — In addition to voting for state and national lawmakers, city voters on Tuesday will also cast ballots on proposed amendments to the City Charter that would change the procedure of municipal primary elections.
Altogether voters will be asked to vote "yes" or "no" on seven questions. Of these, five would bring the charter into compliance with the recent changes in state law and two — questions four and six —would make significant changes to the conduct of primary elections.
The fourth question includes several changes. First, primary elections would be held only for the offices of mayor and city councilor and the primary elections for the School Board and Police Commission would be eliminated.
Second, the 10-day filing period for candidates for mayor or city councilor would be moved from June to August. Third, if fewer than three candidates file for any office, their names will be placed on the general election ballot and no primary election will be held for that office.
In other words, only if three or more candidates file for a particular office — either mayor or city councilor — will a primary election be held. Should three or more candidates file for mayor, a primary election for mayor will be held in all six wards. But, should no more than two candidates file for mayor, primary elections would be held only in those wards where more than two candidates filed for city councilor.
The primary ballot will include space to cast a write-in votes for someone whose name is not on the ballot but those ballots will only be available for races were there are already two or more candidates. That is to say, if there is a primary election for mayor, write-in votes could be cast in all six wards for that race, but write-in votes for city councilor could only be cast in those wards where primary elections for that office are held.
The sixth question would require a write-in candidate to receive at least 35 votes in a primary election to qualify as one of the two candidates earning a spot on the general election ballot.
The remaining five questions on the ballot ensure that the City Charter complies with state law. The first would specify the dates and times when the Supervisors of Checklist are in session. The second would authorize the City Council to set the hours when the polls are open on election day. The third would declare that all municipal elections are nonpartisan and specify that no ballot shall designate a partisan affiliation for any candidate. The fourth would provide that the order candidate's names are printed on the ballot conforms to state law. The last would clarify the procedures for requesting and conducting a recount.
The City Council recommended these changes to spare the costs associated with holding primary elections when and where there were few contested races and voter turnout was sparse. The proposal was discussed at several meetings of the council and at a meeting of its Government Operations & Ordiances subcommittee. The proposed amendment has been the subject of two public hearings.
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.
Primary elections were introduced in 1995 in place of partisan elections, in which party caucuses nominated the candidates for mayor and city councilor. 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 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.
City Clerk Mary Reynolds estimates that the 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.
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