For the last two City Council races, the Charlottesville Democratic Committee has opted to hold a “firehouse primary” to select its candidates for the general election.
However, the committee will meet on Thursday, Dec. 6 to consider abandoning that approach for next year’s nominations and instead joining the June Democratic primary for statewide races.
“Since there’s going to be a primary anyway, it would make sense to piggy-back on that to avoid the cost of the firehouse primary,” said James Nix, the co-chair of the Charlottesville Democratic Committee.
Nix said he believes there will be at least two Democrats seeking the nomination for lieutenant governor. There could also be a nomination battle for governor if Terry McAulliffe is challenged for the Democratic nomination.
Prior to 2009, city Democrats chose its candidates for local offices in an assembled caucus.
“The assembled caucus is the old-fashioned way we nominated all of our candidates through 2007,” Nix said. “We would all meet in a room and people are nominated and we hold multiple ballots until we get a majority favoring somebody.”
Nix said it is unlikely Democrats will return to an assembled caucus format.
The party experimented with the firehouse primary — technically known as an unassembled caucus – beginning in 2009.
In Charlottesville, the format employs an instant run-off process through which voters are instructed to rank all of the candidates in order of preference. When the results are tallied, candidates who receive a majority are nominated.
The candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated, and the results are tallied again. The process continues until all nominated candidates have a majority.
The top two vote-getters in 2009 were incumbent Dave Norris and challenger Kristin Szakos. Incumbent Julian Taliaferro came in third and lost a chance to run for re-election to a second term. Only one round of voting was required.
There were seven candidates for three nominations in the August 2011 firehouse primary. Democrats selected Kathy Galvin and Satyendra Huja on the first ballot, but Dede Smith did not secure the nomination until the fifth round of voting, edging out fourth-place finisher Paul Beyer by 29 votes.
Two Council seats are up for election in 2013 as the terms of Councilors Dave Norris and Kristin Szakos are set to expire. Szakos said in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow that she plans to seek a second term.
Norris said he will announce after the holidays whether he plans to run for a third term.
“I was initially concerned about moving to a firehouse primary because it requires candidates to raise more money than the closed caucus process, but in my opinion the positives have outweighed the negatives and I would support maintaining the existing system,” Norris said.
Nix said he prefers the firehouse primary because of the instant run-off, but that there are advantages to holding a traditional primary.
“The arguments in favor of piggy-backing on the state primary every other election cycle are pretty persuasive,” Nix said. “The advantages are having more places to vote, getting more participation, and saving some funds.”
However, Nix said that a traditional primary means the Democratic nominee could only receive a plurality of votes because the instant run-off system could not be used.
“Conceivably someone could win with a relatively small fraction of support,” Nix said. “It’s a risk we’ll take if we can go with a primary.”
The Democratic party would have to pay all of the costs for the firehouse primary.
City registrar Sheri Iachetta said there would be no additional cost to the city if local Democrats opt for a traditional primary because the election will be held anyway.
Nix said a traditional primary will be more convenient for voters because they get to go to their usual polling places in the city’s nine precincts. The firehouse primary also does not offer a method for absentee ballots.
“Formal absentee balloting is really tough to do,” Nix said. “To do it with adequate controls and safeguards is just really horrendously difficult for the party to do.”