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posted: 11/30/2012 10:07 AM

Editorial: The case against municipal primaries

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Here we are, enjoying a postelection breather before new members of Congress and the Illinois legislature are sworn in, and already another voting season is upon us.

Just 12 weeks from now, on Feb. 26, primary elections in some suburbs will whittle down the field of candidates for municipal office before the April 9 general election.

But in most cases, the primary election won't reduce the number of candidates by much.

In Wheaton's North District, voters in the primary election will cut out just one contender, reducing the number of candidates from five to four who will appear on the April 9 ballot.

The same is true in Aurora's 9th Ward, where the primary will reduce the field from five to four. In Aurora's 4th Ward, seven candidates will be on the primary ballot, to be whittled down to four for the April 9 election.

And in Elgin, 23 people want to be on the city council. But the primary election will reduce that number by only four to six people, leaving as many as 19 candidates to compete for five seats on April 9.

It all adds up to a good argument for getting rid of the primary for municipal elections, saving the taxpayers from the expense and saving voters from confusion.

Don't misunderstand us: We consider municipal elections to be crucial in choosing leaders whose decisions and priorities touch our lives in the suburbs every day. However, the extra layer of a primary election adds little to that and costs roughly $3,000 per precinct, Cook County Clerk David Orr's office reports. Instead, why not have all of the municipal candidates compete on the general election ballot?

Already, most towns forego primaries. Only those with partisan elections or certain forms of government go through the primary process.

Proponents of the municipal primary system argue it's needed to keep someone from being seated for office after winning with just a small percentage of votes. In a field of 10 closely matched candidates, for instance, someone conceivably could be elected with as little as 11 percent of the vote. In some wards of some towns, that could represent just a few actual votes.

Yet, that argument is watered down by action the Illinois legislature took a few years ago, increasing the number of candidates in each race who survive a municipal primary and go on to the general election from two to four.

The idea of a large number of candidates producing a winner with a small number of votes can't be completely discounted, but a runoff election might be a solution when the winning vote total falls below a certain threshold.

We'll bet that most of the time that won't happen, and the number of runoffs would be very few.

Of course, it's far too late for the legislature to make such a change for the 2013 election. But now's a good time to consider how things might be done differently the next time around.

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