Lawrence leaders asked to reconsider policy after primary election costs the city $40,000

City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.

The recent City Commission primary election cost Lawrence taxpayers nearly $40,000.

The election, held Aug. 1, narrowed the field of candidates from eight to six. City Manager Tom Markus has asked the commission to reconsider its ordinance governing the number of candidates required to trigger a primary election.

“I would ask that you think seriously about whether you want to change that threshold number again, before it moves to a primary election,” Markus said at the commission’s most recent meeting.

The city’s home rule measure, charter ordinance 44, was adopted in response to changes in the state law last summer. The state law requires a primary election when the number of candidates is more than three times the number of open seats.

The city’s ordinance requires a primary when the number of candidates is more than two times the number of open seats.

Though the city’s current primary threshold is in line with the threshold it used in the past, the Aug. 1 primary election was the first election under the new state law. Because Douglas County and the Lawrence school district are following the state-set threshold, it is more likely than before that there will be fewer local primaries to share the cost.

This summer, the ballot consisted of only the City Commission primary and the race for one seat on the Lecompton school board. The total number of ballots cast was 6,081, amounting to a voter turnout of 10.38 percent.

In the end, the city paid about $37,400 for the primary and Lecompton paid about $400, according to a report from Markus to the commission.

In 2015, the cost to the city was significantly lower, about $17,000, due to a 44/56 split with the Lawrence school district, the report said. Because the city can’t rely on or predict shared costs, Markus said $40,000 will need to be budgeted for primary election expenses going forward.

Considering that the city incurs no costs for the general election, Markus said the commission should review the benefits of having a lower threshold for primary elections.

In discussions about the threshold last summer, Commissioner Mike Amyx cautioned against adopting a lower threshold for a primary election, noting that although recently there had been more than a dozen candidates, a field of about eight is more typical in his experience.

Ultimately, though, the commission passed the ordinance unanimously. At the time, some commissioners said they thought the state law’s larger threshold could result in an overwhelming number of candidates to consider and decreased engagement from local voters.

In considering Markus’ request, Commissioner Matthew Herbert said large fields of candidates “water down” the votes, making it hard to gauge a message from voters.

“We’re a country that operates our elections based on plurality and not majority,” Herbert said. “And so if you end up having 10, 12, 14 names on a ballot, you’re almost guaranteed to have a couple people win that don’t come anywhere near a majority of the votes.”

But Herbert said given the number of candidates this year, he doesn’t know that the community got a whole lot out of having a primary. He said he is open to changing the threshold or going with the state law, and there is a line somewhere that needs to be drawn.

“I don’t know what that magic number is, where we go from wasting money theoretically to hold a primary to the point at which it becomes pretty necessary,” Herbert said. “The first time I ran we had 14 candidates; that was absolutely necessary to have a primary.”

Mayor Leslie Soden said the $40,000 cost definitely makes the primary threshold a “worthwhile conversation.” At this point, she said she has no strong feelings either way and wants to hear what city staff and residents think.

“If they think $40,000 was worth it or not, I want to hear about that,” Soden said.