The Southern Pines primary election this past week eliminated one of five candidates vying for two seats on the Town Council. But the bigger question may be whether the election’s anemic turnout may finally spur the town to eliminate this costly and needless step.
Southern Pines is the only Moore County municipality whose charter follows the “nonpartisan primary and election method” of electing council members. Under that method, if there are more than double the candidates as open seats, the town must whittle the number down.
In 2017 — and again this past week — the town had five candidates vying for two open seats, meaning a primary election to remove one name ahead of the general election.
The numbers for last Tuesday’s election may yet change slightly — mail-in ballots were still being accepted Friday — but the results are pretty well set: Mary Ann O’Connor, with 118 votes, was dropped from moving on to next month’s election. So the Nov. 2 election for two seats on the Southern Pines Town Council will include Ann Petersen, Tuesday’s top vote getter, and, in order of their primary finish, Taylor Clement, current Councilman Mike Saulnier and Brandon Goodman.
Overall, 838 — out of 11,423 eligible — voters cast ballots in last week’s Southern Pines primary. That’s a 7.34 percent turnout.
The primary election turnout in 2017 was equally abysmal: 801 of 10,279 eligible votes cast, for a turnout of 7.79 percent.
An Easy Fix
Such a low participation rate for an election is cringeworthy, but what makes it especially cringe-y is that elections aren’t run free of charge. The town is figuring the Board of Elections will bill it about $22,000 for expenses like advertising and printing ballots.
Is this bit of civic responsibility and reckoning worth $25 a head? Not when there’s a simple solution.
As we mentioned earlier, no other municipality in Moore County operates under a two-election system for its respective governing councils. From Pinehurst to Vass, Robbins to Pinebluff, councils are elected through what’s called the nonpartisan plurality method.
This method, the most common municipal election overall, lists all candidates, regardless of number, on the ballot. If there are two seats open, the top two vote-getters are elected. If three seats, the top three. You get the idea.
For instance, 10 Foxfire residents are running for three available seats on that village’s council. Voters will have all 10 to consider at once, with the top three winning the seats.
A couple of Southern Pines candidates have already seen the need for change. Both Petersen and Clement expressed interest last week in eliminating the primary election.
Amending municipal charters normally requires approval from the General Assembly, but in this case the legislature has delegated certain aspects that towns can amend on their own. Election style is one of them.
Regardless of who wins next month’s elections, this change should be among the first orders of business for the new Southern Pines Town Council.