The amended version of Bill 45-34, a measure from Sen. Joe San Agustin seeking to eliminate primary elections on Guam, was moved to the voting file during session yesterday.
Lawmakers debated the provisions of the bill, with San Agustin emphasizing the cost-saving goal of the bill, noting that the primary elections are paid for by the public through appropriations made to the Guam Election Commission. Eliminating the primary elections would generate savings, he said.
The Legislature's Committee on General Government Appropriations convened a public hearing for the bill in August, during which Sen. Michael San Nicolas, committee chair, estimated the cost of holding a primary election at around $400,000. San Nicolas added that the 2016 primary resulted in about 2,000 spoiled ballots, which came to an estimated cost of about $32,000.
Election officials also appeared before lawmakers to testify on Bill 45 in the August public hearing. The commission said savings from eliminating primary elections may be offset by the cost of a runoff election, which would "likely be necessary" for the gubernatorial and senatorial races under the majority-vote provisions of the Organic Act of Guam.
"Conducting a runoff election is costly – ballots must be printed, absentee ballots must be packaged and mailed to (absentee) voters, election officials must be hired and overtime costs are higher due to time constraints relative to conducting an election in such a short period of time," said Maria Pangelinan, executive director of the commission.
Pangelinan also said some of the costs of the primary also go to preparing for the general election, such as the procurement of ballot stock, which is cheaper to purchase at one time.
Election process reform
San Agustin also said the legislation has been designed to reform the election process to make it easier for new candidates to run for office.
"This is the first step in making our government more responsive to the people. The present primary process is designed to minimize competition against the political parties. The bill encourages more people from all walks of life to run for elected office," San Agustin said.
Sen. James Espaldon warned that qualified candidates might be shut out if political parties are left to determine unilaterally who the candidates will be.
Espaldon cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the 1998 Guam gubernatorial election, which emphasized the importance of winning the majority of votes cast.
Espaldon said there is a possibility that, if there is no gubernatorial primary and no narrowing down of the field, there can potentially be a three- or four-way gubernatorial race wherein nobody would get a clear majority of the votes cast. There would, then, necessarily have to be a runoff, negating whatever savings may have been realized from not holding a primary election.
Lawmakers moved the bill to the voting file.
Session was adjourned yesterday afternoon after the Legislature exhausted all the bills scheduled in the agenda. The Legislature will resume session tomorrow at 2 p.m. to vote on the bills.