DPS leaders to ask legislators to require runoffs

Apr. 03, 2014 @ 07:23 PM

School leaders plan to ask local legislators to sponsor a bill that would require runoffs in school board elections if no candidate receives more than 40 percent of the vote.

The move is in response to Durham Board of Elections Director Michael Perry’s decision to not hold runoff elections this year, although they have been held in the past.

Perry contends neither state law nor the 1992 agreement merging city and county schools provide for runoffs in school board elections.

In an open letter, School board Chairwoman Heidi Carter and School board Vice Chairwoman Minnie Forte-Brown said the board would ask “local legislators to put forth a law that will ensure that future elections provide for a runoff.” 

They contend runoffs produce better results in races that have crowded fields.

“In the past, our county board of elections has interpreted the law to provide for a runoff when no single candidate gets more than 40 percent of the vote,” the letter said. “However, it appears that in the upcoming election, the top vote-getter will be declared the winner, even if he or she receives less than 40 percent of the vote. This is not the best way to choose board members who represent the views of voters.”

Earlier this week, the validity of the 2010 District 4 school board race was called into question by Gerry Cohen, special counsel to the General Assembly who wrote the portion of the school merger agreement dealing with the elections.

Cohen told The Herald-Sun that if Perry is right, then the 2010 runoff won by incumbent Natalie Beyer is invalid.

 “Let’s be clear, I’m not saying there should or should not be a runoff,” Cohen said Monday. “But if Perry is correct, then the person who got the most votes in May 2010 was elected.”

Beyer won the race in a runoff against then-incumbent Stephen Martin.

Martin received 36.89 percent of the vote in the May 2010 election and Beyer 33.72 percent of the vote.

But in the June runoff, Beyer got 61.29 percent of the vote while Martin got just 38.3 percent of the votes cast.

Cohen said that Martin, or any citizen who felt aggrieved by a 4-3 school board vote in which Beyer voted with the majority, would have legal standing in a lawsuit over the runoff in question.

Martin said Tuesday that he has no plans to take legal action over the 2010 runoff he lost to Beyer.

Carter and Forte-Brown challenged Cohen’s assertion that the 2010 runoff is invalid, and said the school district’s legal counsel has provided assurance that the “actions of all board members currently on the board are valid, regardless of whether they were elected in a runoff.”

School district attorney Deborah Stagner, explaining in a letter to Carter and Forte-Brown, said that a “certificate of election” issued by the “legitimate and authorized election officials” on it face, settles the right of a person to be sworn into office and to conduct the business of that office.

Stagner also wrote that N.C. General Statute 128-6 “codifies the presumption that a person admitted and sworn into office will hold that office unless and until there is a contrary determination by a court.”

Additionally, Stagner wrote that there are numerous cases in North Carolina in which the courts have found that “even where there is a defect or irregularity in an election, the person holding office as a result of such election is a de facto officer, and his or her actions” are considered valid.

Carter and Forte-Brown said they hoped these legal findings will put to rest questions about the validity of past school board elections.

In addition to the 2010 election, there were runoff elections in 2008 and 1992.

The merger document authorized runoff elections for 1992.

Jimmy Doster, a candidate in the District 2 school board race, said he has been telling voters that May 6 will be the only chance they will have to elect school board members.

“As with all laws, they can be amended through the appropriate legislative process,” Doster said in a statement. “But for this election, because of the current written law, voters should go into the polls knowing this is their one opportunity to vote for their preferred school board candidate.”