Politics & Government

Tight primary brings question: Is runoff election worth it?

FRANKFORT - Concerned not only about the costs but the logistics of putting on a runoff election, local officials are urging lawmakers to do away with the provision before this spring's primary elections for governor.

"You've got a lot of county clerks coming to us saying how expensive it is," said Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville. "That's all we've been hearing."

The runoff provision -- which kicks in after the May 22 primary if no candidate for a party reaches 40 percent of the vote -- is expected to cost the counties about $5 million, plus an additional $2 million from the state.

The runoff would occur 35 days after the primary, which would be June 26. But the polling vendors would have a mere 24 days to program the 7,721 voting booths because the machines must stay untouched for 11 days after the primaries to ensure a proper tally.

"It can be done. But is it worth it? That is the question of the day," said Roger Baird, president of Harp Enterprises Printing Inc., which programs voting machines in 96 of the 120 counties.

And that's what legislators will debate starting this month now that Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, has filed a bill to do away with the runoff provision.

The runoff is left over from the 1992 election reforms, which were intended to curb candidates' spending as well as the perceived influence of big-money campaign donors. Gubernatorial candidates could qualify for up to $1.2 million in taxpayer money for their campaigns if they raised only $600,000 and capped their spending at $1.8 million.

A potentially even playing field financially for candidates raised the likelihood of crowded elections. So the runoff provision was created for the governor's race to ensure that a party's nominee received a substantial chunk of voters' support -- at least 40 percent.

But the General Assembly eliminated the public funding for gubernatorial candidates for the 2003 election, and changed the law in 2005 -- but it left the runoff.

"The members I talked to like it, but they've heard from their county clerks who have told them that it would cost them about $1,000 per precinct to put it on," Nelson said.

Even though the provision wasn't needed for either party in 1995, 1999 or 2003, most lawmakers and political observers say it's likely to kick in this year. The Democrats have seven candidates in the race and no consensus front-runner.

The Republicans also could push the primary into overtime if the three GOP candidates -- Gov. Ernie Fletcher, former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup and Paducah businessman Billy Harper -- all fail to reach 40 percent.

Democratic leaders in the House must first decide whether to allow Nelson's bill to move forward for debate.

House Speaker Jody Richards, one of the Democrats' seven candidates for governor, said last month he'd be open to repealing the runoff.

House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark, a Louisville Democrat, said the runoff is out of place now and would force financial hardships and extra workloads on the counties.

"I, personally, would do away with it," said Clark, who is supporting former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry in the Democratic primary.

Politically, Clark said, the the 35-day sprint of a campaign in the runoff would "help the candidate with the most money."

Key Republicans in the GOP-controlled state Senate, such as its president, David Williams, also have offered little resistance to scrapping the overtime period.

"I don't like runoffs to begin with," said Sen. Damon Thayer, a Georgetown Republican and chairman of the Senate's state government committee. "But I want to wait and see how it plays out, and if it ends up in the state and local government committee, I would look favorably on it."

But some lawmakers aren't yet convinced that it's best to get rid of the provision this year, because the governor's race has already begun.

"This is a question of the integrity of the election process," said Rep. Tim Firkins, D-Louisville. "We ought not change the rules on a whim."

Don Blevins, the Fayette County clerk, said the philosophy behind the runoff was undermined when the General Assembly stripped the other election reforms. In fact, keeping the runoff now favors the millionaire candidates who can self-fund their campaigns -- the type of advantage the '92 election reforms were intended to nullify, he added.

And Blevins noted that it's doubtful that a runoff would ensure that a majority of party voters determine a party's nominee.

Turnout is generally much lower in primaries than in general elections and even lower in special elections, such as a runoff. In addition, June 26 is an inconvenient time for voting when families are on vacation, school is out and college isn't in session, he said.

"There doesn't seem to be a great sentiment one way or the other to have it," Blevins said. "I wish the two parties in Frankfort wouldn't play political football with it. They both know it's not a good idea now, in my judgment."