STOW -- Voters will have an opportunity to decide whether they want to eliminate primary elections for city offices.

City Council approved 6-0 on April 27 an ordinance to place an issue on this year's November general election ballot asking voters whether they want to amend the city's charter to eliminate the September primary. Councilor John Pribonic was absent.

The ordinance was introduced by Council Vice President Matt Riehl on March 23. Council voted down a competing ordinance April 13, introduced by Council president Mike Rasor in December, that would have moved the primaries forward to May.

Riehl said eliminating primaries is appropriate for a non-partisan community such as Stow, which holds primaries to narrow down the number of candidates for the offices of mayor, finance and law directors, and ward Council seats to two when more than two candidates file with the Summit County Board of Elections to run for those positions or down to six candidates for the three Council-at-large seats.

Riehl said eliminating primaries would also address the same concerns raised by Rasor when he introduced his proposal, including widening the window that the board of elections has for mailing ballots to Stow residents living overseas, particularly those serving in the military, as well as save the city money.

"I just want to thank Mike for bringing this up last year, the primary issue," said Riehl just before the vote. "This proposal is a win, win, win, win. It solves the military problem that Mike pointed out, it saves the taxpayers dollars, it allows the voters to hear from more candidates with different ideas in the general election and it also allows candidates to campaign to a larger electorate and for some of those who care about this, I'm not one of them, it shrinks the campaign window and there will be fewer months with fewer yard signs and fewer pieces of literature littering the neighborhood."

Rasor told the Stow Sentry May 2 that depending on what happens in November, he may bring back his proposal next year.

"Matt's charter amendment, if adopted by the voters, will resolve both of my issues; that we weren't giving overseas military enough time to vote, and that we were paying way too much for primary elections," said Rasor. "If our community rejects Matt's amendment and decides in November to keep the primary election, then I will re-introduce my proposal to move the election to May, which is almost certain to be approved by voters. One way or the other, I'm confident voters will help us fix this problem before 2019."

Councilors Brian D'Antonio and Brian Lowdermilk expressed their support for putting Riehl's amendment on the ballot.

"I appreciate both of you guys bringing up the issue," D'Antonio, who had voted to put Rasor's proposal on the ballot, told Riehl and Rasor. "I think the voters should have the chance to decide on something."

Lowdermilk said, "I think [Riehl's proposal] accomplishes all of the concerns that were brought up and discussed."

Timing and costs

cited as 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 odd-numbered years, Stow's charter requires a September primary and this causes 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.

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.

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.

Says proposal would solve timing issue, create savings

Riehl said his proposal would also resolve the timing issue and save even more money for the city by eliminating all primary costs.

Riehl has said the city 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.

"When it comes to financing, this is not a small amount; $129,000 can be used can be used to buy multiple police cruisers, 15-plus years of bulletproof vests, some body cameras, a couple of lane miles of roads, stormwater projects, or even pay down six figures of debt," said Riehl.

The state is taking its own efforts to save money on primaries. Congressional districts would skip special elections when primary races for vacancies are uncontested, under House Bill 18 that passed the Ohio House April 25, sending it to the Ohio Senate for consideration.

The legislation is similar to SB 10, which passed the Ohio Senate in March and which is sponsored by Sen. Frank LaRose (R-Hudson).

Riehl said that numerous other area non-partisan communities and school districts do not have primaries.

"This is not an abstract process, this is not a rare proposal," said Riehl, adding that, "In cutting costs in business, in personal finance, in government, very few opportunities come along where you have low-hanging fruit. This is one of them...We're just giving the voters of Stow the opportunity to decided whether or not they want primaries, nothing more, nothing less."

Editor's note: Marc Kovac, who covers the Ohio Statehouse for Gatehouse Media, contributed to this story.

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