Schewel, Davis also interested in election-system changes

Nov. 28, 2013 @ 01:51 PM

Two more city leaders say they’d like the City Council to consider making a change to the city’s election system, perhaps to one that would mirror Raleigh’s.

Councilman Steve Schewel and Councilman-elect Eddie Davis both said this week the council should revisit the issue in hopes of saving some of the money the city spends on elections every two years.

“I’m interested in exploring it,” Schewel said. “What I want to make sure of is that we are not dampening turnout.”

The city now holds a two-stage election with a primary in October and a general election in November. The primary occurs if more than two candidates contest the mayor’s office or any single council seat.

Officials budgeted $360,000 for the 2013 election and could save half that going forward if they can agree on a way to avoid one of the votes.

Council members in 2009 rejected the idea of moving to a one-stage, plurality election, for fear of hurting racial minorities’ chances of being elected to city office.

But Councilman Don Moffitt, spurred by a precinct judge’s complaint about low turnout in this year’s council and mayoral primary, has suggested taking a look at using Raleigh’s system.

The capital city holds a general election in October, followed if necessary by a November runoff for any races where the leading candidates fail to secure more than 50 percent of the vote in the first go-round.

Moffitt said it seems Raleigh usually avoids runoffs and thus the cost of second votes, which lies in having to pay local boards of elections for the staffing of precincts and printing of ballots.

But both Schewel and Moffitt say they’d worry an October election could suffer from the low turnouts that typify Durham’s city primaries. Only 6.1 percent of the city’s registered voters participated in this year’s primary, versus the 10.7 percent who voted this month.

“That’s my concern, that if we have an October general election that we don’t create a situation where our turnout is down,” Schewel said. “But if we can do it and we feel comfortable it will not reduce turnout, and we can save money, that would be great.”

He added that figuring out the potential effect on turnout “is the tricky part,” one he’s “not exactly sure” how city officials might undertake.

Of the three, Davis seemed the most willing to consider a change. He won the council’s Ward 2 seat this fall after taking 59.1 percent of the vote in the primary and 64.8 percent in the general election. Both times, he bested bail bondsman Omar Beasley, by enough in the primary there would have been no need for a second vote under the state-established rule Raleigh uses.

“Without discussing this with any of the members of the council, I would favor a system like Raleigh has as long as there’s a clear cutoff, maybe 50 percent,” Davis said. “If a person does gain that kind of advantage, that should be enough to ensure election.”

Mayor Bill Bell has suggested a higher threshold, 60 percent, to eliminate second ballots only in clearly one-sided races. He hasn’t forgotten the 2001 mayor’s election, which he ultimately won, would’ve ended differently under Raleigh rules. Then-incumbent Nick Tennyson took nearly 52 percent of the vote against Bell in that year’s primary.

But Davis said 50 percent plus one vote “is a good threshold and “certainly is sufficient.”

County Board of Elections records indicate that if the Raleigh system had been in place for Durham city elections from 2001’s forward, there would have been a November runoff only twice, in the 2003 and 2005 balloting for council at-large seats.

A 60-percent threshold, on the other hand, would have produced runoffs in five of the seven elections to occur since the downsizing of the City Council. Only in 2009 and 2011 did all the leading candidates in October post margins that large.

Raleigh rules would have yielded a radically different outcome to the 2001 balloting, as it wasn’t just Tennyson who would’ve won outright in October assuming no change in turnout.

In fact, the top three vote-getters in 2001’s primary for council at-large seats all crossed the 50 percent threshold. They were then-incumbents Thomas Stith and Dan Hill, and then-challenger Lewis Cheek.

Stith and Cheek wound up winning in November, but Tamra Edwards upset Hill for the third at-large seat as Bell was eking out his win over Tennyson.

Edwards and former Councilwoman Angela Langley would have made it into an at-large runoff only if the early leaders had needed to cross a 60 percent threshold.

Given a 50 percent threshold, Cora Cole-McFadden would have won the Ward 1 seat in October 2001 instead of having to go to a second round of balloting against Jeffery White. A 60 percent threshold would’ve put them in a runoff. Howard Clement and John Best, meanwhile, were in and won two-person ward races that under both the Durham and Raleigh systems needed only a single vote.

In 2003, the Raleigh system would have triggered a four-way council runoff between Stith, Diane Wright, Eugene Brown and Warren Herndon, using either a 50 percent or a 60 percent threshold. Bell and first-time council candidate Diane Catotti would’ve won in October outright.

Brown that year upset Wright in November, becoming the last person to date to win office after finishing outside the money in a primary. Bell, Catotti and Stith joined him as eventual winners.

In 2005, Bell and Cole-McFadden scored easy re-elections. Clement and future Councilman Mike Woodard would’ve secured ward seats in October using a 50 percent threshold, but would’ve faced a runoff given a 60 percent threshold. Woodard defeated Best that year, while Clement held off challenger Regina Stanley-King.

Come 2007, the two-way Bell-Stith shootout for mayor would have played out as it did, but Brown, Farad Ali, Laney Funderburk and David Harris would have squared off in a runoff for council at-large seats. Catotti would’ve been re-elected to council in the first round. The threshold again would have made no difference in setting the field for the runoff. In fact, Catotti, Brown and Ali won in November.

Two years later, Bell, Cole-McFadden and Woodard scored blowout wins. Clement in being re-elected also would’ve avoided a runoff, but he topped the 60 percent threshold by only the proverbial “plus one” vote in a five-way primary.

The 2011 election was the only non-competitive at-large council election since the council downsized from 13 to seven members. Catotti, Brown and Schewel all topped the 60 percent mark in October and were in fact later elected. Bell, meanwhile, scored an October blow-out over a trio of challengers and made it stick the following month.