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Colin Campbell: Wacky rules complicate municipal elections

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Colin Campbell is a columnist for the Capitol Press Association.

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By Colin Campbell
Capitol Press Association

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

If the rules for Raleigh’s municipal elections had applied to last year’s governor’s race, Pat McCrory would have had the power to send voters back to the polls in December. It would have been the same election without the Libertarian candidate – and given Gov. Roy Cooper’s narrow margin of victory in November, it’s anybody’s guess who would have won the runoff.

But Raleigh and several other cities and towns in North Carolina have systems that make multiple elections a frequent occurrence – even if the first vote isn’t close. In Raleigh, candidates for mayor have to get more than 50 percent of votes to avoid a runoff. So while challenger Charles Francis finished nearly 12 percentage points behind incumbent Mayor Nancy McFarlane, he gets to decide if the city will hold a runoff election in November.

A number of municipal candidates across the state are facing that tough choice after the October elections. Campaign supporters who have spent hours volunteering don’t want to give up easily, but the candidate risks looking like a sore loser if they request a recount.

Runoffs are also a huge pain for election agencies, which are begging second-place candidates to make a quick decision so they can prepare ballots for a runoff. Early voting for November runoffs starts just over a week after the first election. Holding additional elections is costly, and that money could be better spent on other government services.

North Carolina has a confusing patchwork of processes and schedules for municipal elections. Some require 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff, others require 40 percent – the threshold in state primaries. Some, such as Durham, vote twice regardless of how the first election turned out, with a primary to narrow the field of candidates to two. The varying systems mean that some communities vote in September, some in October, some in November – and some in all three months. That leads to confusion among voters, and makes a statewide get-out-the-vote campaign next to impossible.

The legislature has gotten well-deserved criticism for taking power from local governments, but this is a situation where intervention from Raleigh could actually be beneficial. It’s time for the state to standardize municipal elections with a single schedule and a single format.

As usual though, the devil’s in the details. Legislative leaders would likely prefer to make all elections partisan – something they argue would give voters better information about the candidates. But it would also have the effect of injecting more partisan politics into local government.

Asking voters to pick local leaders on the usual November election day makes sense, but how would the runoff process be handled?

In 2013, a group of House Republicans filed a bill that would eliminate runoffs entirely – meaning that the first-place finisher would win even if they received a small percentage of the total vote. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dennis Riddell, R-Alamance, pointed out that turnout is substantially lower in runoff elections. “What I want to do is highlight the absurdity of crowning someone the winner who got fewer votes than the lowest finisher in the (first) primary,” Riddell said at the time. His bill didn’t pass, but the problem continues.

A runoff this month in a Charlotte City Council race had a 3 percent turnout of eligible voters. The candidate who placed first in the primary with 1,466 votes came in second during the runoff to a candidate who received 969 votes.

An elections bill expected to become law soon would lower the percentage needed to avoid a runoff from 40 percent to 30 percent, but it would only apply to state and county races.

One way to ensure the winner gets more than 50 percent is a system called instant runoff voting. Voters pick their preferred candidate and list their second and third choices if their top choice doesn’t make the cut for a second round. North Carolina tried it for a judicial race in 2010, but some voters found the process confusing and the state scrapped the idea.

It would take a serious voter education effort, but it might be time to give it another try. Just about anything is better than the current system. But for now, go out and take advantage of the low municipal election turnout – you might just cast the deciding vote for your next mayor.

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