STOW -- Voters may be asked to decide on a change to the city's charter regarding primary elections, but what that change might be is unclear.
City Council Vice President Matt Riehl told the Stow Sentry March 15 that he plans on introducing legislation at Council's March 23 meeting to place an issue on November's general election ballot that would amend the city's charter to eliminate the September primary.
Council is currently considering an ordinance proposed by Council President Mike Rasor that would place an issue on the November ballot amending the charter to move the primary forward to May.
Rasor introduced the ordinance in December, but it has been held at second reading since Feb. 9.
"Eliminating primaries would address my two concerns: that a September primary negatively affects overseas military and that a September primary is more expensive than a May primary," Rasor told the Stow Sentry, also on March 15. "Ultimately, we might want both my proposal and Matt's proposal to appear on the ballot, because voters might not be comfortable going so far as eliminating primaries altogether, but I'm very certain they are willing to move the primary date in order to allow overseas military to have a voice in city matters. I would hate for voters to reject Matt's plan, without having the option to make a less drastic change to address my two concerns."
Proposal a 'win-win'
Riehl initially made his proposal March 9 after Rasor tried to get Council to vote on his ordinance, only to see it held again after Councilors Brian Lowdermilk and Bob Adaska indicated they would not vote for it.
In a March 15 press release, Riehl said the city paid $34,000 for the September 2015 primary to eliminate a single candidate and has paid $129,000 since 2007 to eliminate a total of nine candidates. He further noted that primaries since 2007 have averaged voter turnouts of a little under 11 percent, with 2015's turnout at just 5.5 percent.
"Spending over $34,000 on an election to eliminate only one candidate is extremely wasteful," said Riehl in the release. "This is money that could be used to pave roads, purchase a police cruiser, fix stormwater problems, promote economic development, or pay down the city's debt."
Riehl said primaries are intended for partisan races, which Stow does not have. He said that numerous other area non-partisan communities, including Munroe Falls, Twinsburg, and Macedonia, as well as the Stow-Munroe Falls Board of Education, do not have primaries.
"This proposal is a win-win for our taxpayers," Riehl said. "The city will save money, the voting public will have more candidates to choose from, and the candidates will be able to campaign to a larger electorate."
Rasor cited two reasons
Rasor has said changing the city's charter to move primaries up would both increase voting access for Stow residents abroad, especially those serving in the military, as well as save money for the city.
In the 2016 general election, 16 Stow voters requested that absentee ballots be mailed to international addresses, many to military personnel serving overseas. Boards of elections are required under state law to prepare the general election ballots at least 45 days in advance of election day. Because the 2016 primary election was in March, this was no problem.
But in odd-numbered years, Stow's charter requires a September primary, which does cause a problem. There are 56 days between a September primary and the November election. The board of elections is not permitted to canvass the results until 11 days after the primary. If there is a recount or any delays of even a day, then the board of elections would be unable to prepare the ballot in accordance with state law.
To account for this timing problem, the Ohio Secretary of State has instructed boards of elections to send two versions of the ballot to military voters. The first ballot omits any race that was affected by the September primary. The second ballot contains all races and issues. Often, the second ballot is never submitted.
"It has been brought to my attention that we've unwittingly not been giving enough time for overseas military to cast their votes," said Rasor on March 9.
Rasor has said a second reason is that Stow would save money by changing its primary to May. Election costs are spread across all of the Summit County communities who have an election on a given date.
More elections take place in May than in September, so the costs are spread out more.
Stow paid $34,472.28 for its primary in September 2015, but if that primary were in May, then Stow's cost would have been around $20,000, said Rasor.
In addition, if Akron also moves its primary to May, then Stow's savings could increase to around $30,000, as Akron's 137 precincts would also share the cost of the May primary. But if Akron were to move its primary from September to May, but Stow did not, costs would increase significantly for Stow. According to Rasor, for the September 2015 primary without Akron, costs for Stow's 27 precincts would have more than doubled in 2015.
"If Akron moves, we will have lost a big cost-sharing partner," said Rasor.
Stow already pays for a May primary election on odd-numbered years when the Stow Municipal Court judges or clerk of court is on the ballot.
Taking more time to decide
On March 9, Lowdermilk said he has looked into the matter and has not been able to find any evidence that anyone has been deprived of the right to vote because the primary is in September.
In addition, he said that moving the primary forward to May would lengthen "the campaign cycle to where, especially with two-year terms, pretty much a perpetual campaign for the offices of City Council."
"I'm not sure moving the primary is the answer," said Lowdermilk. "We're a non-partisan community which would maybe allow us some other options."
Adaska said he is "all for saving money," but does not want to make a decision on moving the primary to May based on what Akron might do in the future.
"Maybe we should sit back and wait and see what Akron does because if Akron does what Mike thinks they're going to do, then we could quickly react to that," said Adaska. "So right now, I don't think I'm going to support this."
Councilor Jim Costello said Rasor's ordinance has been on Council's agenda for several months and no resident has come to Council taking issue with it or raising concerns.
Costello said he does not believe a change to May would make a difference in Council election campaigns and added, "I've got no problem changing it. If Akron doesn't move, we're still saving a little bit of money and we're saving a lot of money if Akron moves."
Lowdermilk said he believes Riehl's proposal would address all of the concerns raised by Rasor. Costello and Councilor John Pribonic said they want time to consider it as well.
"I'm very intrigued by (Riehl's) idea. It does work with the School Board," said Pribonic.
Mayor Sara Kline, who worked with Rasor on his proposal, said the important thing is preserving voting rights.
"However Council wants to tackle this, I think that it's important to bear in mind that we should always in a democracy be in favor of increased ballot access," she said.
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