WATERTOWN — Here’s a solution to two issues haunting public officials pertaining to city of Watertown elections:
Abandon the idea of holding a primary!
This would save authorities in Jefferson County the time and expense of conducting a profoundly unnecessary election. The Watertown general election could be held in the summer, when its primary would usually take place. And in the very unlikely event that a tie occurred in any of the races, a runoff election could be held in the fall.
Two years ago, a fabricated controversy gripped the city. Two of the top three vote-getters in the mayoral race tied during the 2019 primary.
Jeffrey Smith received 837 votes, while Allison Crossman and Cody Horbacz each received 597 votes. The election law for Watertown calls for the candidates with the two highest vote totals to be placed on the general election ballot.
The simplest answer would have been to name Crossman, Horbacz and Smith as mayoral candidates in the fall contest. But Jude Seymour, the Republican commissioner for the Jefferson County Board of Elections, would not accept the notion of three candidates being listed on the ballot for the general election.
He insisted (wrongly, as it turned out) that the law only allowed two candidates to proceed. This is the way it’s always been, he said, and he was going to obstruct the process to get his way.
Babette Hall, Jefferson County’s Democratic commissioner, didn’t go along with Seymour’s idea. She clearly understood that the law permitted more than two candidates to be placed on the ballot if circumstances warranted.
So they had an impasse. And the only way to resolve this question would be for a judge to rule on it.
Samuel Thomas, chairman of the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, filed an Article 78 proceeding in state Supreme Court. This allows an individual with standing to object to an action taken by a governmental entity.
On Aug. 7, 2019, state Supreme Court Judge James McClusky ruled that the election law for the city did not bar three candidates from being listed on the ballot in the general election. There was no way to prove that legislators intended there to be only two candidates, and the law says nothing about a tie needing to be broken before the general election, McClusky wrote.
So three candidates it was! Smith won the general election to become Watertown’s mayor.
One would believe that this should have been enough to settle the question forever. If a tie occurred in any of the races, it’s acceptable to place more than two candidates on the ballot.
But some public officials remain obsessed with the idea that we must have no more than two candidates moving forward. Seymour and Michelle LaFave, who succeeded Babette as Democratic commissioner for Jefferson County, persuaded members of the Watertown City Council to consider changes to the election law.
They told council members that the revisions would “curtail candidate confusion, protect voter franchise and provide certainty in primary results,” according to a story published Sept. 18 by the Watertown Daily Times. During a Sept. 13 work session, city authorities said they agreed with some of the changes proposed.
I’m not sure where the “confusion” or “uncertainty” is when it comes to the 2019 primary results. Three candidates received the two highest vote totals, so they all advanced to the general election. What’s the problem?
In addition to this issue, there’s also a question of which governmental body should pay for a primary. Jefferson County declares that the election law for Watertown mandates the city to pay them.
But city officials said that revisions to the state election law have set a precedent for the county to absorb these costs. Watertown hasn’t paid for a primary for many years, much to the chagrin of Jefferson County.
So if people want to make some meaningful changes, here they are:
Get rid of the primary! Hold a general election in the summer; the one candidate in each race with the most votes wins. If (heaven forbid) a tie occurs in any race, conduct a runoff election in the fall.
Since this would eliminate the need for two elections in all but the most extreme circumstances, Jefferson County should pay for the general election. But if lightning strikes twice and there is a tie, Watertown would foot the bill for a runoff election.
Watertown does not need a primary. Need proof? Look at my beloved hometown of Chicago.
Like Watertown, Chicago’s elections are nonpartisan. If no candidate receives a majority of all votes cast in a race, a runoff is held. Since 1999 (when the city began its nonpartisan election process), only two runoffs have needed to be held for the mayoral race (2015 and 2019).
Chicago has a population of 2.7 million people; Watertown has about 25,600 residents. Let’s get over ourselves! If the City of the Big Shoulders/Hog Butcher for the World/Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler can suffice with a single election, so can we.
By adopting this plan would, we would move beyond the silly idea that a general election must have no more than two candidates per race. It also would settle the question of who pays for what election.
And by (usually) having one shot every other year at selecting our city representatives, this may increase turnout. All in favor say “Aye!”
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to email@example.com. They also may follow him on Twitter: @WDT_OpEd.