The Durham City Council has again revived talks of eliminating primary elections for council seats and instead holding a runoff if the general election doesn't produce a clear winner. But residents who spoke during a public hearing on the issue Monday seem more interested in overhauling the city's ward system.
According to city attorney Patrick Baker, state law mandates that ward representatives should be elected only by voters in their ward. Durham's system, in which ward members are elected citywide, was approved as an exception to the law. Baker said the city would need to amend its charter to get rid of primaries and may need permission from the General Assembly to rework the ward system.
Durham’s council includes three ward representatives, who are required to live in the ward they represent, and three at-large members.
Discussion of amending Durham's election procedure began in 2006 as an idea to save money. Currently, the city holds a nonpartisan primary, narrowing the field of candidates before the general election. The proposed change would do away with the primary. If the highest vote-getter on Election Day does not win a majority of votes, the next highest vote-getter could request a head-to-head runoff.
The 2015 municipal elections cost the city $400,386, Baker said in a memo to city officials, including $137,688 for the primary and $146,312 for the general election.
Several residents who spoke Monday demanded to know who on the council had suggested saving money, in their view, at the expense of voter turnout.
"Which one of y’all started this and why?" said resident James Chavis.
Council member Don Moffitt said, "Every new council member who has been elected" in his four years representing ward 3 has been shocked to see how much elections cost and has asked whether that cost could be brought down. (Mayor Bill Bell, who is not seeking reelection this year, made it clear he has "never raised a question about changing the election because of the cost.")
"It seemed a little bit problematic to be spending money on an election that didn't actually affect the outcome of races in the majority of circumstances," said council member Jillian Johnson, who holds an at-large seat. "However, I don't see a strong need to move forward with this change to the election procedure right now, and I would support putting it to a referendum. ... I don't think we have good evidence either way as to whether this would reduce or increase turnout."
The runoff system received its strongest endorsement from ward 2 council member Eddie Davis. Davis pointed to Raleigh and Chapel Hill, which don't have primaries, as examples of the model's success. Those cities saved "valuable funds without sacrificing the cherished principles of inclusionary voting," he said.
Davis argued the runoff system would not change election results. Citing data from the Durham County Board of Elections, he told the crowd that in just four Durham council races, primary leaders have not gone on to win the general election.
At-large council member Charlie Reece voiced support for amending the ward system, should voters approve it in a referendum. (His suggestion to put any election change on the ballot got some of the biggest applause of the night).
"I've heard a lot of people say a lot of things about why it's a bad idea to move to a true ward system─
the idea that somehow ward members who are elected only by registered voters in their ward would be parochial, I guess, or too concerned with their own ward," Reece said. "To my mind, that is a feature of a true ward system and not a bug. That is something to be applauded and not concerned about."
Immanuel Jarvis, chairman of the Durham County Republican Party, says redefining the ward system could give Republicans a shot at a city council seat, where presently they have none. The party could focus its efforts on boosting a quality candidate to represent voters in one potentially winnable ward, rather than struggling citywide, where they are woefully outnumbered.
As of October, there were 114,841 registered Democrats in the city
, 70,664 unaffiliated voters, and just 29,573 registered Republicans. Ward 3 has the slimmest margin between its Democrats and Republicans─21,518. Just one precinct citywide has more Republican voters than Democrats, as of February 2016.
"Every locale and every area of town has their own interests, so for that particular reason, if you have a person who is living that area, who knows the people, who is elected by those people, you know your voice is heard," Jarvis says.
Jarvis worries, however, that the runoff system would only draw out Durham's City Council elections by triggering runoffs.
"Regardless of my position, my concern is with all the citizens of this great county," he says. "The
bottom line is when you have runoffs and you don’t have primaries, you have people flooding in to run for office."