Primary elections serve an important role in allowing voters to get acquainted with candidates and cast informed ballots not only in the primaries but in the subsequent general elections.
Two years ago, the Kansas Legislature agreed to a plan that drastically reduced primary elections for city and school board races across the state. The measure was conceived as a cost-cutting measure, especially for less populated areas of the state, but in larger cities, including Lawrence, it has had a detrimental effect on the election process.
On Tuesday’s agenda, Lawrence city commissioners are being asked whether to pursue a charter ordinance that overrides the state’s primary law and returns Lawrence to the old primary system that requires a primary election when the number of candidates is more than double the number of seats available. Commissioners missed an opportunity to exempt the city from the new law before the 2009 City Commission elections. They shouldn’t miss the opportunity to correct this problem before the next city elections in April 2011.
The wording of the state law is somewhat confusing, but it was determined in 2009 that a Lawrence City Commission primary would be required only if 10 candidates filed for three open commission seats. Because only eight candidates filed, no primary was held. Under the previous rule — and the rules the city should return to — a primary would have been required to reduce the number of candidates to six.
Primary elections serve an important purpose for local voters. First, they draw public attention and get voters started thinking about candidates and key city issues. Narrowing the number of candidates to six before the general election gives voters a better opportunity to examine individual candidates and the talents they offer before casting their votes.
Unfortunately, school boards across the state can’t opt out of the new primary provisions. Although school board primaries are less frequent in Lawrence, requiring primaries when the number of board candidates is double the number of seats available is desirable for all the same reasons cited for the City Commission. Although it may have been well-intended, the new state primary law has had some undesirable consequences that state legislators should correct as quickly as possible.
In the meantime, Lawrence commissioners should move ahead on the charter ordinance to opt out of the state primary system. Holding a primary election would cost Lawrence about $34,000, which already is part of the city’s 2011 budget recommendation. Even in a tight budget year, it’s a worthwhile investment in the democratic process.