Election changes may load ballots

Reduction in primaries will send more candidates to general vote

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A change in state law would have eliminated the need for City Commission primaries in four of the last six elections. Under the new law, 11 candidates are needed to trigger a primary. Here are candidate totals for recent City Commission elections.

2007: 9

2005: 8

2003: 10

2001: 12

1999: 9

1997: 12

If more really does make for merrier, get ready to have a real ball when it comes to city and school board elections.

State lawmakers – in the final days of the session – passed legislation that makes it far less likely that City Commission and school board races will require primary elections. Instead, voters would be allowed to choose from a large field of candidates in the general election.

Here’s how the new system will work:

A City Commission contest will not require a primary election unless 11 or more people file for the three seats, which come up for election every two years. Currently, a primary election is held anytime there are seven or more candidates, and the primary narrows the field to six. Under the new system, the field would be narrowed to nine.

The changes for the school board would be similar. When three seats are up for election, it will take 11 candidates or more to trigger a primary, which is usually held in late February. When four seats are up for election, it will take 14 or more candidates. In that case, the primary will narrow the field to 12 candidates.

“It is going to make for some real interesting math, for sure,” said City Commissioner Sue Hack, a veteran of two commission elections.

Both city commissioners and school board members on Wednesday expressed mixed emotions about the change. The League of Kansas Municipalities lobbied for the change because it will allow local governments to save money. A primary election in Lawrence costs about $40,000, Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew said.

But some elected leaders worried Wednesday whether the change would diminish voters’ ability to get to know candidates. In Lawrence, elections have featured the use of public forums where voters are able to ask questions of the candidates. During the primary season, those forums typically have been more general in nature because time constraints make it difficult to ask a slate of 10 candidates a series of specific questions.

During the general election – when the field normally has been narrowed to six – the questions typically become more specific and issue-oriented.

“I think this could prevent the public from getting sufficient information,” said school board member Marlene Merrill. “I mean, really, who would want to sit through a three- or four-hour forum?”

The city can opt out of the state law by passing a charter ordinance, said Kim Winn, director of policy and communications for the League of Kansas Municipalities. The school board, however, cannot, said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist with the Kansas Association of School Boards.

City Commissioner Mike Amyx said he was willing to give the new system a try, but would want to watch how the new system works.

“I’ve always looked forward to having a primary,” Amyx said. “I think it is good for the community.”

Without a primary, it is likely winners of the election will receive a smaller number of votes than in past years. General elections for city and school races have generated about 20 percent turnout in recent years. That 20 percent would be split among nine candidates instead of six.

“It is bad enough right now when you have such low voter turnout to say you represent a community but you have only won 4,000 votes in a town our size,” Hack said.

On the flip side, primary elections have not produced strong interest. About 12 percent of eligible voters turned out for the 2007 city and school primary, Shew said.

League leaders said several smaller communities had asked for the change. In some communities, three people would file for one open seat. That would necessitate a primary election to eliminate one person.

“It seemed a little superfluous,” Winn said. “The bottom line is it should save a little money.”