Canceling Primaries Protects Incumbents



August, 2005

You cannot put a price on democracy. Yet, the city of Methuen recently tried to cancel their preliminary election, officials said, because too few candidates took out nomination papers. Why have a preliminary election, they asked, and spend thousands of tax dollars when most races for mayor, school committee and city council are uncontested?

Here’s why!

First, most political insiders and elected officials would rather do away with primaries because they are unpredictable. Especially when a primary is uncontested.

Let’s say that the only person running for a single city council seat is the incumbent. Cancel the preliminary and the incumbent is guaranteed reelection. It is nearly impossible for a write-in candidate to beat someone whose name already appears on the ballot.

But, hold a preliminary election in this uncontested race and members of the public — or political activists — may recruit a sticker or write-in candidate (who only needs 50-100 write-in votes) to challenge the incumbent and have his name appear on the November ballot. That means incumbents have to spend money and campaign for their seat when they were expecting to walk right in.

You can see why the political insiders are so eager to cancel preliminary elections when they can. Cancel that primary and the public is stuck with only one candidate, losing out on the potential for better choices.

Since Methuen officials announced that they were going to petition the legislature to cancel their preliminary election last month, a flood of new candidates came out of the wood work, resulting in almost every race being contested. So, what will  they do now?

Cancel the cancellation of the preliminary?

As it stands now, candidates for each office are in the dark as to whether or not Methuen will try to “save money” by canceling the preliminary election (meaning a winner-take-all contest in each race). What if a voter wants to mount a write-in campaign to challenge a highly contested race? Conventional wisdom says he most likely can’t win. But conventional wisdom has been wrong before. And, isn’t’ it up to the people, not the process, the insiders or the incumbents to make that decision?

Canceling preliminary elections is always a bad idea. It takes away the right of the public to choose alternative candidates or express their displeasure with the powers that be. Running a write-in or sticker candidate for office is the ultimate expressions of democracy. 

How dare the elite insiders use the excuse that they want to save the taxpayers money when what they really want to save is their own stranglehold on power.