Crowded ballot

A move to eliminate many local government primaries may work for some Kansas communities, but it doesn't seem right for Lawrence.

Taxpayers always appreciate local government efforts to save money, but a new move to save money on local elections may not serve the voting public well.

In the closing days of its 2008 session, the Kansas Legislature passed a bill that would eliminate, in many cases, primary elections for city commissions and local school boards. Primaries currently are required whenever the total number of candidates is more than twice the number of seats that are to be filled. That’s six candidates for Lawrence City Commission and either six or eight candidates for the Lawrence school board, depending on whether three or four seats are up for election.

The new law takes two steps to allow much larger slates to advance to the general election. First, it would require primaries only when there are three times as many candidates as seats. Additionally, it says primaries won’t be held unless at least two candidates would be eliminated from the general election field. Taken by itself, the second part of the measure makes some sense, but when coupled with the three-candidates-per-seat rule, it only makes the numbers even more unmanageable. Under this measure, the general election ballot for City Commission could list as many as 11 candidates; the school board could include up to 14 candidates for four seats or 11 for three.

The League of Kansas Municipalities, which represents the interests of local governments across the state, favored the change because it would save money. How much money? A primary election in Lawrence costs about $40,000, according to Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew, and costs in smaller communities probably are lower.

It’s true that participation in primary elections often is low and that many smaller communities are more worried about finding at least one candidate for each seat on a government body than on eliminating candidates in a primary.

In a city like Lawrence, however, primaries serve a useful purpose in narrowing the field to a manageable size, allowing voters to examine more closely who the candidates are and where they stand on specific issues. Candidate forums and other events intended to inform voters already struggle to provide more than superficial treatment of important issues. Trying to provide a meaningful forum for twice as many candidates would be almost impossible.

There has been no move to eliminate primaries in partisan elections for county and state offices, regardless of how many names are on the ballot. The role city commissioners and school board members play in our everyday lives is no less important and those bodies deserve just as much consideration.

Although the Lawrence school board is stuck with this new law, the city can opt out of the law by passing a charter ordinance. It’s an action that city commissioners should seriously consider – and their decision should be based on what best serves local voters rather than on what will save money. Even in tight financial times, $20,000 a year is a good investment if it helps facilitate the election of thoughtful, well-qualified city commissioners.