RALEIGH -- The decision to oust the incumbent mayor of North Carolina’s largest city came down to a margin of just 3,398 voters -- 0.6 percent of the registered voters in Charlotte.
Pathetic voter turnout in municipal races is nothing new, and the 8.73 percent turnout for the Charlotte City Council primary is actually an increase over past years. It could’ve been worse: Back in 2015 in the Bladen County town of Clarkton, the race for town commissioner was tied at 25 votes each, and so election officials literally flipped a coin to decide who would lead the town.
The consensus in Charlotte is that Mayor Jennifer Roberts fell short in the Democratic primary because of how she handled protests after the police shooting of Keith Lamont Smith, as well as the LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance that prompted House Bill 2. But thanks to the dismal turnout, we’ll never know for sure if the majority of Charlotte residents actually disapprove of Roberts’ performance.
Can anything be done to fix the apathy surrounding local elections? I could spend this entire column lecturing you about how local government decisions on development, property taxes, parks and utilities have more impact on your daily life than politics at the state and national level.
But I bet you already know that and plan to vote in your town or city’s election this October or November (unless you’re like me and live in an unincorporated area that misses out on the off-year fun). You’ve read this far into a newspaper column about voter turnout, so you’re the sort who understands your civic duty.
So I’ll skip the lecture and instead take a look at our state legislators’ proposed solutions. One bill filed this year would make all municipal races partisan, continuing the legislature’s effort to put party labels on every single elected office.
Partisan races could entice voters who’d participate if only they didn’t have to bother researching the candidates. You could walk in, vote a straight ticket, and never have to worry about learning the mayor’s name.
Some municipal races -- like Charlotte -- are already partisan, but the switch would pose problems. Charlotte’s mayoral contest sometimes includes three different election days: A partisan primary, a primary run-off if no candidate gets enough support, and the general election. Requiring three separate trips to the polls in three months is a great way to keep turnout low.
Then there’s the futility of applying political parties’ principles to local issues. Back when I covered the Raleigh City Council, the nonpartisan council had registered Democrats and Republicans, but votes rarely split along partisan lines. Instead, there was the pro-developer faction that generally supported new construction and the “pro-neighborhood” faction that sometimes voted no when neighbors mobilized in opposition.
Injecting more partisanship into local government would lead to more fights with the legislature. Democratic Party activists would run the state’s biggest cities, and they’d wade into state and national issues like immigration in order to build a springboard to higher office. Republicans would do the same in smaller and more conservative communities.
Politicians looking to move up are less likely to spend time worrying about local governments’ key functions: Police and fire protection, clean water, garbage pick-up and the like. Critics of Roberts’ tenure as Charlotte mayor argue she’d fall into that category.
Partisan local elections would also reduce the participation of candidates who are registered as unaffiliated -- a category that this month became the second largest group of voter registrations in North Carolina, surpassing the Republican Party. They’d have to register with a party or collect thousands of signatures to get on the ballot; many simply wouldn’t bother.
Another legislative proposal to increase turnout would move municipal elections to even years. More voters would certainly participate, but only because they were already casting ballots for president and other high-profile offices. Local races would hardly get any attention, and the candidate with the quirkiest name on the ballot might be your new mayor.
There’s no easy solution to the turnout problem, so you’d better just go vote -- and drag your friends and family along too.
Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.