No runoffs in school board elections

Mar. 31, 2014 @ 06:03 PM

Unlike in the past, there will be no runoffs in the school board election even if candidates receive less than 40 percent of the vote.
Michael Perry, director of the Durham County Board of Elections, said the county has been erroneously holding primaries since the 1992 merger of the former city and county schools.
Perry said language in the 1992 school merger document only called for runoffs in the 1992 school board election, if needed.
Board of Elections records show that there was a runoff in the Consolidated District B that year
He contends that all races after 1992 should have been conducted using the “simple plurality” method, meaning the top vote-getter wins even if it’s by one vote.
Perry said that is the way the May school board election will be conducted.
“The person who gets the most votes wins,” Perry said.
He said the issue is that the school board election is not a primary election requiring runoffs under state law.    
“It’s an election,” Perry said.
But if Durham has been erroneously holding school board primaries, then are past elections in which candidates participated in runoffs legitimate?
Gerry Cohen, special counsel to the General Assembly who wrote the portion of the school merger agreement dealing with the elections, said they are not.
“If he’s [Perry] is saying that, then the election result from 2010 must be invalid,” Cohen said.
Cohen is referring to the 2010 runoff in which school board member Natalie Beyer bested incumbent Stephen Martin.
Martin actually received the most votes in May 2010, but lost to Beyer in the June runoff.
Cohen said if Perry is correct, then Martin actually won the election in May 2010 and that could put in jeopardy any 4-3 votes the board took in which Beyer voted with the majority.
“Let’s be clear, I’m not saying there should or should not be a runoff,” Cohen said. “But if Perry is correct, then the person who got the most votes in May 2010 was elected.”
He said Martin or any citizen who felt aggrieved by one of those 4-3 votes would have standing to sue if the election is indeed invalid.
Martin could not be reached by comment Monday.
Cohen said the school merger agreement made it clear that a runoff election would be held in 1992 if it was needed. But he said it was “murky” about what should happen after 1996.
There was also a school board runoff in 2008 between school board member Leigh Bordley and Jonathan R. Alston, which Bordley won.
Perry, who began looking into whether the school board should have runoffs after a citizen inquired about the process, said he has contacted school officials and Durham County’s legal department and hopes to reach some kind of agreement about how to proceed with the school board election.
But he is convinced that state law and the merger agreement document does not provide for runoffs in Durham’s school board elections.
“We all need to be in agreement,” Perry said. “I’m not sure where to go if were not all in agreement.”
Deborah Stagner, an attorney for the school board, said the board has not taken a position on Perry’s interpretation of the legal statute regarding runoffs for school board.  
Stanger said in the past the school board has relied on the way the Board of Elections has interpreted the law.