Last week, residents of Durham's McDougald Terrace took members of the influential People's Alliance by surprise when they showed up at the PAC's endorsement meeting and made an impassioned plea for Ward 2 city council candidate John Rooks Jr.
Many expected that endorsement would go to Mark-Anthony Middleton; he'd already won endorsements from the city's other two major political action committees and had earned the PA interview committee's recommendation. But the residents of McDougald Terrace, the city's largest public housing development, were able to sway PAC members in favor of the candidate they said represented their community's interests.
Jackie Wagstaff, the Durham County Democratic Party's precinct 18 vice chairwoman and a former city council member, says that kind of campaign wouldn't have been necessary if not for the city of Durham's unusual and unintuitive method of electing ward representatives.
"There has been a domination of the political scene in Durham based on this system," says Wagstaff. "As long as this system is in place, candidates running for ward seats, even if they're not popular in their ward, they can still get elected. ... The residents had to come out and basically say, 'We don't want who y'all are choosing. We want our representation.'"
Currently, Durham's city council includes three at-large members and three members who represent a ward. The ward members must live in the district they represent, but, like the at-large members, they're elected citywide. This setup ensures that council members aren't all from the same part of town, but with about sixty thousand voters each, wards are broad in terms of geography and ideology.
In April, Wagstaff introduced a resolution during the Durham Democrats' annual convention in support of a true ward system for Durham, in which ward representatives are only elected by residents of that district. The measure failed, but it was by no means a shutout, and as municipal candidates campaign on promises of equity, accountability, and reversing entrenched power structures, it's worth considering whether the current system gives all residents equal influence and oversight of the council.
The history of Durham's ward system is one made more complicated by fading memories, legalese, and pre-digital records. But it seems ward representatives in Durham were elected this way nearly one hundred years ago.
As early as 1921, Durham had at-large and ward members who were elected citywide, writes historian Jean Anderson—"a racist provision to prevent blacks from electing one of their number to the council" at a time when there were far fewer black voters. The same arrangement is codified in a 1924 version of Durham's charter, and clarified in a 1975 version that was amended in 2001 to reduce the council from twelve seats to its current six.
Today, wards with more black registered voters—1 and 2—are represented by black council members.
According to the UNC School of Government, thirty-two other municipalities in North Carolina have some council configuration that includes district members elected by the entire city or town, but none comes anywhere close to Durham's size (the next largest is Hickory, with about forty thousand people). Major cities—including Charlotte and Raleigh—have representatives elected by the residents of their district.
Wagstaff says the current system makes it difficult for "grassroots" and African-American candidates to win a seat on the council and protects status quo incumbents who are able to appeal to "powers that be" outside of their ward.
"It was set up so that there would never be a chance that an average everyday person could win a council seat," she says.
For proponents of the true ward system, it's also an accountability issue. A candidate elected by a community to represent that community is beholden to those voters, and they can kick him or her out if they aren't satisfied. Under the modified ward system, they need people across the city to agree. Wagstaff proposes adding a fourth ward and another at-large seat to make each district smaller.
Tom Miller, the Durham Democratic Party's precinct 3 chairman and a PA PAC coordinator, argues that a true ward system doesn't make sense for a city like Durham, where the electorate is diverse but generally unified in its values. Miller spoke against Wagstaff's resolution in April.
Having one council member wholly accountable to the residents of a ward is a "lousy trade-off" for having three ward representatives who need voters citywide to stay on the council, Miller says. As diverse as Durham is, he says, it's a "fallacy" that wards could be drawn to reflect a particular group, neighborhood, or interest.
"You might have a council member who would be more responsive, but you would create two or more wards who would be totally indifferent to the needs of people in a different geographic area," he says.
Furthermore, he says, a true ward system would be more vulnerable to political manipulation, rather than preventing outside money and influence from flowing in.
"If you oppose gerrymandering, and if you oppose elected officials choosing their constituents rather than constituents choosing their elected officials, then you have to be against this for a town like Durham," Miller says.
The city could implement a true ward system through a charter amendment, which can be initiated by either a citizen petition or by the city council (and affirmed by a referendum, depending on the process). Wagstaff believes that change could be possible with the current slate of municipal candidates.
"When those real progressive folks are sworn in, I think this conversation will be best suited for them," she says. "They want to be inclusive. That's what they talk about—equity. Are we being inclusive? Are we being equitable in how this system is set up? I think that's when we'll have that change."