Election process recommendations are presented

WEIRTON – The committee looking to overhaul the municipal election process gave City Council its recommendations Tuesday, though it will be a month or more before any decisions are made.

City Clerk Nicole Davis, who presided over the process, told council the 2011 municipal election cost Weirton just over $48,000, almost $6,500 more than the $41,656 they spent in 2007. A big chunk of the election expense – around $15,000 – was to meet state requirements for advertising the election, though another $20,000 was chalked up to pollworker pay as well as costs incurred by city employees assisting with various election-related tasks. Another $11,000 was spent on supplies.

Voter turnout numbers, however, haven’t been strong: In 2011, only 2,616 of the 13,832 city residents registered to vote in Hancock County cast primary election ballots, and only 2,765 voted in the general election. Brooke County numbers weren’t available.

To save money, the committee indicated its preferred option would be to piggyback municipal elections on county and state ballots. Other options include eliminating the primary election, consolidating poll sites and eliminating paper ballots.

“We estimated (piggybacking) would save us about half what we spend now,” Ward 4 Councilman George Ash said, though pointing out that under that scenario, city officials would have no say about pollworkers. However, costs for things like advertising and pollsite rentals would drop significantly.

“It’s still got to be cheaper than what we have,” Ward 2 Councilman Chuck Wright said.

Under the piggyback scenario, Davis said there’d be a normal city election in 2015. The new administration’s term would be extended 13 months to accommodate the county election cycle, and terms would begin in January rather than July 1, as is currently the case.

“Making this one-time change to the election process would require council to unanimously approve proposed legislation modifying current election procedure,” the committee said in its six-page report to council. “The main downfall with this scenario is the new administration would take office mid-fiscal year and be operating on a budget approved by the previous council.”

And even if council is unanimous in its favor of the change, Davis said if only one resident objects, it would have to go to voters on the next election ballot.

Conceding that it’s unlikely the proposal wouldn’t face at least some opposition, Ash pointed out that if there were objections “we could put the charter amendment on the next ballot in 2015.”

But eliminating the city’s primary election altogether, the committee’s second choice, also would require a charter change, Davis said.

Having no primary would result in a “winner-take-all” scenario, though there’d be provisions for a recount if needed. It hasn’t been done that way here, because Weirton is a non-partisan municipality and only a general election is mandated.

The committee figured skipping the primary could cut election costs in half.

“A lot of the nonpartisan municipalities around the state do it,” Davis said, adding that either option has the potential to increase voter turnout.

But Ward 6 Councilman Dave Dalrymple voiced concern that eliminating the primary “would take away our ability to weed through a large field of candidates,” suggesting some people might run just to draw votes away from another candidate.

Other alternatives presented for council’s consideration:

Combining precincts: The city currently uses 19 different polling sites spanning seven wards, with portions of three of them falling in both Brooke and Hancock counties.

Combining precincts would reduce poll sites to one each in wards 1, 2, 6 and 7, and two each in wards 3, 4 and 5. Though it would shave several thousand dollars from election costs, council members voiced concern that combining multiple precincts under one poll site could potentially confuse voters.

“One thing to consider if we consolidate is do we have places large enough to accommodate (all the voters),” Dalrymple said. While voter turnout in recent years has been disappointing, he said city officials must always consider the potential for a big voter turnout.

“We’re running out of large buildings,” he said.

Doing away with paper ballots, which would save money in terms of supplies as well as processing. The city would have to rent voting machines from Brooke and Hancock counties, however.

Dalrymple did ask council to consider changing the charter to make the city clerk’s job permanent, rather than an appointed position, to allow for continuity.

“That position is very important,” he said. “It’s the grease that” holds city government together.

While originally suggesting the change involving the clerk position be presented to council at next week’s meeting, Davis asked council to instead consider any items requiring charter changes at one meeting to facilitate scheduling state-mandated public meetings.

“I’d like to do any charter changes, whatever you decide, at one meeting,” she said.

Also under consideration is formation of an election commission mirroring what is currently being done at the county level. Members of the council would form the commission and be charged with selecting poll workers, canvassing votes and other tasks.