Friday, March 4, 2016

NEW! The City Spot Café Serves Up Primary Election Goodness

There's plenty of talk about primaries at the federal level
happening right now. But what about primaries for cities?
Definition: “Primary” means an election at which the voters choose by ballot the nominees for the offices to be filled at a general election.

Plain-language explanation: A city can choose whether it wants to establish a municipal primary and have their city races on the primary ballot. A city can establish a city primary and have their races on the primary ballot if the council adopts a resolution or ordinance by April 15 in the year when a city general election is held. (If you are a charter city, double-check with your city attorney on steps needed.)

The city clerk should notify the secretary of state (SOS) and the county auditor within 30 days after the adoption of the resolution or ordinance. Once adopted, the city will continue to hold a primary for all city elections into infinity—or, until it decides to stop. It should also be noted, for non-partisan offices, if no more than twice the number of individuals to be elected file for office (example: two council seats are open, and four or fewer candidates file) the names of the candidates go directly on the general election ballot, essentially skipping the primary.

In the news: Approximately 30 cities in Minnesota end up holding a municipal primary in any given year, according to SOS data. Cities with primaries include Buhl, Albert Lea, and Elk River. Alexandria recently adopted a municipal primary ordinance. Minneapolis and St. Paul have ranked choice voting instead of a primary.

Pros: So why would cities want to establish a municipal primary? If a city consistently has a large number of candidates running for office, a primary can narrow the field. A primary also provides more opportunities for voters to learn about candidates.

Cons: On the flipside, if a city consistently has few candidates running for office, a primary may not be necessary. A primary can also extend the length and cost of campaigns.

League position: The League doesn’t have a position on whether your city should or should not hold a primary. That one is up to your council to decide. The League has adopted several policies to strengthen the effectiveness of local election administration, including a policy to encourage the Legislature to seek the input of cities on any proposed changes to state election law. Specifically related to primaries, the League has an adopted position supporting the option for cities to certify primary election results within three days of the election instead of waiting until the third day as is required under current state law. See the League’s election policies here.

Resource: Want additional info on municipal primaries?  Check out Chapter 5, Election Procedures, in the Handbook for Minnesota Cities and the 2015-2016 City Calendar of Important Dates.

This info has been served up by Chelsea Helmer, a law clerk with the League of Minnesota Cities' Research and Information Service. Contact: or (651) 281-1226.

This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.

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