Possible changes coming to Durham municipal elections

Topline:  The following changes to the process for conducting Durham municipal elections are being discussed:

  1. Eliminating the primary and moving toward run-off elections when candidates do not receive a majority of the vote.
  2. Changing the current ward system to a “true” ward system where only people who live in the ward can vote for the candidate who runs for that ward seat.
  3. Increasing the number of seats on the council from 7 to 9. 
  4. Deciding the above issues by council vote or by placing it on the ballot in November for voters to decide.

What you can do?

  • Educate yourself more on Accountabull.org and watch excerpts so you have better sense where each council member stands.
  • Contact your council members and express your concerns. 
  • We believe a progressive priority is to increase access to the ballot and to maximize voter turnout. 

On February 6th, council members took public comments on a proposed city charter amendment to change the process for conducting Durham municipal elections.  The change under consideration would eliminate primaries for municipal elections.  Instead, run-offs would be held in the event that a candidate does not receive a majority of the vote. 

Few people attended the meeting. Those present suggested other changes, including increasing the size of the council from 7 to at least 9 and changing the ward system. Under the current ward system, candidates running for ward seats must live in the ward, but must run in city-wide elections (i.e. all candidates run citywide). The few residents who spoke expressed concerns about what changes might mean for representation from black and Latinx communities.

Reece asked the city attorney whether this matter could go to the public for vote in November.  The city attorney commented that it is possible for the city to add it to the ballot, but that he would need to determine whether this could happen by the November election.  

Key Moments

  • Davis supports this change, citing that over the past 30 years, run offs would only have happened four times.  "If Durham were to change its election process ... it is estimated that during most election cycles, we would save well over $100,000 in precious taxpayer money."
  • Schewel opposes this change, and cited evidence from Raleigh that the change from primaries to a run-off system is likely to reduce turnout. “Our highest goal ought to be to maximize turnout … We should not sacrifice turnout to save money.”  

  • Mayor Bell said, “I would never vote to make a change about our elections to save money. Never. If there is one thing I think we ought to be willing to do is to spend money to have the opportunity to vote or not vote.” 

  • Johnson supports placing this on the ballot for voters to decide. “It seems problematic to spend money on elections that did not affect the outcome of the races in the majority of circumstances.”  Johnson also supports an instant runoff; however, this is not currently allowed under state law.  

  • Reece expressed interest in learning if it was possible to place these propositions on the ballot in November for voters to decide.  He also seemed interested in learning more about changing the way the ward system currently works, stating that parochialism is not “not a bug but a feature” of a true ward system. 

  • Moffitt suggests that if any changes are made, we should wait until 2019 because this could already be a confusing election. 

  • Cole-McFadden suggests that a true ward system might mean it costs less to run for elected office.

Read more & support your local news: 
Durham City Council considers nixing primary election (News & Observer)