Originally Published: September 3, 2017 6:06 a.m.
It costs the city an extra $80,000 or so every two years, it requires a longer campaign season for candidates, and it can lead to voter confusion.
So, in the wake of last week’s hotly debated ballot results, some voters have posed the question: “Is the Prescott primary really needed?”
Former Prescott City Councilman and longtime resident Malcolm Barrett Jr. maintains that the answer is “no.”
“I see no purpose in it,” Barrett said. “It’s a non-partisan race. The only purpose of primaries is for parties to select” their nominees.
Barrett says elimination of the primary would better serve Prescott. “I would like to see one election, winner take all,” he said.
Another former city councilman disagrees, however. Ken Bennett, who was elected to the Prescott Council in the 1980s and went on to serve in the Arizona Legislature and as Arizona Secretary of State, sees the city primary as a way of narrowing the field of candidates to allow for a clear majority.
“I think a primary is important, even in non-partisan races,” Bennett said.
Especially in cases where multiple candidates are seeking a seat, the primary guarantees against electing a candidate with a small percentage of the vote, Bennett said.
For instance, he said: “What happens when nine people are running for mayor, and the top vote-getter wins with 20 percent of the vote?”
Prescott’s primary/general not unique
For decades, the city has conducted a primary and a general election in the uneven years. Candidates can be elected outright in the primary by receiving 50 percent plus one of the ballots cast in the race.
The seats that are not filled in the primary then go on to a runoff in the general election, with the two top vote-getters for each unfilled position advancing.
Usually, the status is fairly clear on primary night – with one or two winners elected outright, and the top vote-getters among the others proceeding to the general.
This year, questions arose – in part because there were six candidates running for three seats on the council. City Attorney Jon Paladini said afterward that none reached the 50-percent-plus-one mark, and all six would proceed to the general.
Some voters have disputed that, however, and have maintained the top three vote-getters should have won outright in the primary.
Christina Werther, general counsel for the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, says most Arizona cities and towns have a similar primary and general election schedule.
But, she pointed out that many of the other municipalities in the state have gone to conducting their elections in the even years to comply with the state’s consolidated elections law.
A number of charter cities, including Prescott, opted to retain the uneven-year schedule for their municipal elections, and court rulings have determined that they were within their rights to do so.
Likewise, Werther said other Arizona municipalities have gone to the state’s method for calculating a majority of votes, which is different from Prescott’s 50-percent-plus-one rule, and has a lower benchmark for winning outright in the primary.
Paladini has maintained that Prescott’s status as a charter city exempts it from the state’s majority-calculation rule, and that the 50-percent-plus-one of the ballots cast rule stands.
Do top primary finishers go on to win?
Bennett points out that a similar debate arose in the community in 1985, the year he was elected to the City Council.
That year, he said, nine candidates were seeking three seats on the council, and the top vote-getter was declared a winner on primary night, even though he did not receive the 50-percent-plus one of the ballots cast.
That left two seats to be filled, Bennett said, and the four remaining top vote-getters went on to the general.
“People assumed that the top vote-getters would go on to win,” Bennett said. “But that year, it flipped.” Although he had finished third in the primary, Bennett won in the general, as did the fourth-place primary finisher.
Indeed a look back at the past decade and a half of city elections shows that while the top vote-getters in the primary often do go on to win in the general, the places sometimes reverse.
In 2001, for instance, candidate Allisone Scott finished in third place in the primary, about 280 votes ahead of the fourth-place finisher Bob Roecker. In the general, Roecker ended up winning by about 200 votes.
The same thing happened in 2007, when long-time Councilman Steve Blair finished the primary in third place – about 140 votes ahead of fourth-place finisher Lora Lopas. (Top vote-getters Mary Ann Suttles and Jim Lamerson were elected outright.)
In the general, Lopas went on to win the third open council seat by about 700 votes. (Blair regained a council seat in 2009 and is among the six candidates heading to the general election this year. Others include: Phil Goode, Alexa Scholl, Connie Cantelme, Joe Viccica, and Greg Lazzell.)
A similar scenario played out in 2013, when candidates Ellie Laumark and Greg Lazzell finished third and fourth, respectively, with only 52 votes separating them. Lazzell went on to win the primary by about 800 votes.
Voters could bring change
Paladini notes that Prescott’s primary/general election schedule is part of the city’s charter. And, he said, “In theory, the voters of this city could change it” through a charter amendment.
But he pointed out that the schedule is a tradition in Prescott that dates back decades.
While the city’s election schedule “may seem quirky,” Paladini said he has been told that it originated with an attempt to lessen the impact of single-shot voting – a practice of choosing only one candidate rather than the three that voters are entitled to choose.
For years, the city has paid the county to conduct its mail-in election. This year, City Clerk Maureen Scott said the cost is $2.50 per registered voter, which amounts to about $72,500. In the primary, the city paid an additional $6,200 cost for ballot printing – for a total cost of about $78,700.
Scott expects the costs to be similar in the Nov. 7 general election. (The total excludes the cost for publicity pamphlets on ballot propositions, which will not be required in this general election.)