Last week the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners took a look at eliminating the city’s primary-style elections.
The commissioners took that look, then seemingly shelved any action.
The system is one in which if more candidates than open board seats file to run, then a primary, or early election, is held to whittle the field. In other words, if four candidates file to run for a given board seat, a primary is held with the two candidates receiving the most votes moving on to the real election. This extra election is costly — the most previous one cost city taxpayers more than $10,000.
We believe it would be in the best interest of city residents if the board took up the issue again, along with a few other proposals that came up during public discussion on the idea.
The main objection to eliminating the primary system seems to be some fear that democracy in Mount Airy will crumble if a candidate takes office without receiving at least 51 percent of the popular vote. Those who take this position suggested if the city does eliminate the primary system that it institute a run-off voting system in which a losing candidate can demand a run-off if the winner doesn’t receive at least 50 percent, plus 1, of the total vote.
We really don’t see the necessity for this. Democracy doesn’t fall if a candidate takes office with a plurality of votes, rather than a majority. Some high-profile examples of candidates who won elected office with less than 50 percent of the vote include George W. Bush in his 2000 bid, Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996, Richard Nixon in 1968, even John Kennedy in 1960 and Harry Truman in 1948. Other towns here in Surry County also allow an election winner to take office with a plurality of votes, rather than a majority. Democracy seems to be in fine shape in Dobson and Pilot Mountain.
Quite frankly, even with a run-off system, a candidate still wins a seat with less than 50 percent. Say there are four candidates vying for one office, and none of them receive the required 50 percent, so the top two vote getters move on to a run-off. At that point, between those two candidates, presumably someone will earn at least 51 percent of the run-off vote, but the fact remains, when presented with a full slate of candidates all competing on an even playing field, the so-called winner was not able to muster the needed majority.
Doing a run-off to get a supposed majority is just playing games to get an artificial number.
When it comes to election laws, the local governing body has two primary functions: to ensure all candidates and voters can take part in a fair election, and to do so at the least possible reasonable cost to taxpayers.
For this reason, we believe the commissioners should strongly consider these ideas that were discussed at the Feb. 21 public hearing:
• Eliminate the primary without instituting a run-off. This will save the city more than $10,000 wasted every election cycle. probably more, as costs for these things tend to rise over time.
• Move the elections to even years. This would have two primary benefits.
First, it would pair the elections with others that typically draw more voter interest — the presidential election, other national and state elections as well. This would help generate more participation by city residents in the local election.
Second, it would save money, again probably more than $10,000. This is because the city must now stage, and pay for, the local portion of national and state elections on even-number years, and then incur the same costs for city elections on odd-numbered years. This would eliminate the odd-numbered year costs.
Taking these two simple steps would continue to keep elections open and fair to candidates and voters, and save city taxpayers money. To use the old cliche, that’s a win-win for everybody.