Voters at the Douglass Community Center in Southern Pines on Nov. 3, 2020.

File photo: Voters at the Douglass Community Center in Southern Pines on Nov. 3, 2020.

Less than 8 percent of eligible voters in Southern Pines have cast ballots in the town’s two most recent primary elections, including the election that wrapped up last Tuesday.

At an expected cost to the town of $22,000 for election-related expenses, some have questioned whether this first-cut election is needed.

The town’s charter requires a primary when there are more than twice as many candidates as open seats. So with five candidates vying for two seats — that also occurred in 2017 — a primary election was needed to eliminate one candidate prior to the general election. This is what’s called the “nonpartisan primary and election method.”

While each election cycle is unique and the need for a primary has been sporadic in the town’s history, “it does happen,” said Mayor Carol Haney.

In 2007, Haney’s late husband, Mike, was one of five candidates seeking the mayoral seat. A primary election narrowed the field to two candidates in the municipal election with Mike Haney, at the time a sitting councilmember, ultimately securing the most votes. He served 14 years on the town council, including two terms as mayor, eventually rotating off in 2011.

In 2017, Carol Haney, Daniel Kohn, Mitch Lancaster, Mason MacDonald and Marsh Smith competed for two open council seats. Haney and Lancaster carried the most votes in the primary and subsequent municipal election. Haney was later elected to the mayoral seat in 2019.

According to the Moore County Board of Elections, 801 ballots were cast out of 10,279 eligible voters (7.8 percent) in the 2017 Southern Pines primary election. Town Manager Reagan Parsons reported the total bill then at $20,600.

The Southern Pines primary that wrapped up this week resulted in 838 ballots cast out of 11,423 eligible voters (7.3 percent), and carried an expected cost of $22,000.

“When you look at this and see the town has spent over $40,000 in the past two (primary) elections and only seven percent are voting, that is a problem,” Haney said.

Southern Pines voters have come out a bit stronger for the municipal elections, but the counts are still low. In 2017, approximately 18 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. The most recent municipal election in 2019 saw 24 percent of eligible voters showing up at the polls.

Haney said “when the dust settles” after Election Day on Nov. 2, she anticipates the council will have a discussion — possibly as soon as January — about the primary election requirement included in the town’s charter.

“One concern is that if you have 10 people running for office, without a primary, that means you might see a person elected after winning only 10 percent of the votes, leaving 90 percent of the rest of the people unhappy. I think that is the thought behind having this process.”

She also sees that, as the town’s population grows, there may be more interest from potential candidates in the future.

“I think we can look at (town charter) to tweak it, or regroup, or maybe not do anything,” Haney said. “We will look for staff input and legal advice for the best way to do this if we do or don’t make a change.”

Parsons said staff could pull together pros and cons but would not make a recommendation, noting instead any changes would be a community decision.

“It’s true the “twice as many plus one” primary can appear to be expensive and overkill when the bare minimum is what has been met, like in this year’s election,” Parsons said. “That is the option the legislature provides. The utility of a primary comes into play when you get three or four times as many candidates as seats available. Imagine four or five running for mayor, eight or ten running for two seats on council. It’s a recipe for a single issue or extreme candidate to slip into a seat with less than 25 percent support of the electorate.”

If an option existed that would allow for an “expansion” on the number of candidates that trigger a primary, Parsons said he believed such a change would have garnered momentum, but state law generally limits the form of elections.

All other Moore County municipalities ascribe to what’s called the nonpartisan plurality method. All candidates compete for the available seats, with the top getters winning election.

For instance, in the village of Foxfire, 10 candidates are competing this year for three open seats. Village voters will choose from all 10, and the top three vote getters will be elected.

Seven percent of eligible voters in Southern Pines have cast ballots in the town’s two most recent primary elections, including the election that wrapped up last Tuesday.

At the expected cost of $22,000 -- the amount billed to the town by the local elections office for associated expenditures, such as truck rental fees to move polling site equipment, advertising and printing expenses -- some have questioned the necessity for a primary election.

The town’s charter requires a primary when there are double-plus-one candidates in the running. Each election cycle is unique and the need for a primary has been sporadic in the town’s history, “but it does happen,” said Mayor Carol Haney.

In 2007, Haney’s late husband, Mike, was one of five candidates seeking the mayoral seat. A primary election narrowed the field to two candidates in the municipal election with Mike Haney, at the time a sitting councilmember, ultimately securing the most votes. He served 14 years on the town council including two terms as mayor, eventually rotating off in 2011.

More recently, a primary election was required in 2017 when Carol Haney, Daniel Kohn, Mitch Lancaster, Mason MacDonald and Marsh Smith were running for one of two open council seats. Haney and Lancaster carried the most votes in the primary and subsequent municipal election. Haney was elected to the mayoral seat in 2019.

According to the Moore County Board of Elections, 801 ballots were cast out of 10,279 eligible voters (7.8 percent) in the 2017 Southern Pines primary election. Parsons reported the total bill at $20,600.

The Southern Pines primary that wrapped up this week resulted in 838 ballots cast out of 11,423 eligible voters (7.3 percent), and carried an expected cost of $22,000.

“When you look at this and see the town has spent over $40,000 in the past two (primary) elections and only seven percent are voting, that is a problem,” Haney said.

Southern Pines voters have come out a bit stronger for the municipal elections, but the counts are still low. In 2017, approximately 18 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. The most recent municipal election in 2019 saw 24 percent of eligible voters showing up at the polls.

Haney said “when the dust settles” after Election Day on Nov. 2, she anticipates the council will have a discussion -- possibly as soon as January 2021 -- about the primary election requirement included in the town’s charter.

“One concern is that if you have 10 people running for office, without a primary, that means you might see a person elected after winning only 10 percent of the votes, leaving 90 percent of the rest of the people unhappy. I think that is the thought behind having this process.”

She also sees that as the town’s population grows, there may be more interest from potential candidates in the future.

“I think we can look at (town charter) to tweak it, or regroup, or maybe not do anything,” Haney said. “We will look for staff input and legal advice for the best way to do this if we do or don’t make a change.”

Town Manager Reagan Parsons said staff could pull together pros and cons but would not make a recommendation, noting instead any changes would be a community decision.

“It’s true the “twice as many plus one” primary can appear to be expensive and overkill when the bare minimum is what has been met, like in this year’s election,” Parsons. “That is the option the legislature provides. The utility of a primary comes into play when you get three or four times as many candidates as seats available. Imagine four or five running for Mayor, eight or ten running for two seats on Council. It’s a recipe for a single issue or extreme candidate to slip into a seat with less than 25% support of the electorate.”

If an option existed that would allow for an “expansion” on the number of candidates that trigger the primary, Parsons said he believed such a change would have garnered momentum, but the General Statute is pretty limiting.

(1) comment

Robert Beck

New York City mayoral election allowed for preference votes, rating the candidates. Perhaps this scheme would eliminate a need for the primary and allow the winner to receive a greater % of the votes. Just saying.

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