Each race in our upcoming Durham election is competitive. The mayor’s race is receiving a lot of attention, as Mayor Bell decided not run again after serving eight terms. The open seat has brought out many faces, old and new. With each candidate offering a vision for the city, we are in a position to chart the course for our future.
There is an excitement about selecting our new mayor. The problem is the low voter turnout in recent elections (http://www.dconc.gov/government/departments-a-e/board-of-elections/official-elections-results). According to the Board of Elections, turnout in 2015 was 10.8 percent in the general election. It was only 7.6 percent in the primary.
Looking at the data over time, the highest percent voter turnout in the city was 42.2 percent in 1989 (the year we elected our first black mayor, Chester Jenkins). The second-highest percent voter turnout was in 1979, with 42.1 percent.
In terms of number of voters, 2001 saw a record 37,198 voters (the year we elected Mayor Bell to his first term and Cora Cole-McFadden to her first term in Ward 1). The second highest number of voters after that was 2007, with 36,318 voters (this when we elected Farad Ali to one of the at-large seats).
Yet, in recent years, the number of voters reached an all-time low of 11,484 voters (8.1 percent) in 2009. We have seen tremendous growth in our city, but we have not seen tremendous growth in the number of voters. Yet, we are not alone. Local elections tend to have lower turnout (https://www.citylab.com/equity/2016/11/in-the-us-almost-no-one-votes-in-local-elections/505766/).
There are several ways to think about this trend. The first is a belief that not everyone needs to vote. We can trust our neighbors to make good decisions for us.
The second way to think about this is to be worried, disappointed, or upset. While people complain about state and national politics, local politics is often where the candidate pipeline starts (think about all the former city council members serving in our state legislature, for example). Local politics is also one of the few venues where residents have a direct line of communication to elected officials. We can do more than send an email or make a phone call. We can attend the City Council meetings, voice our concerns to our elected officials, and watch them vote on the issues that impact our day to day lives.
The third way to think about this is to do something! I want to challenge the residents of the city to get out and vote in this election.
We are lucky enough to live in a city that provides us with many resources to become informed. The Durham County Board of Elections website has resources about how to register to vote, where to vote, and important dates (http://www.dconc.gov/government/departments-a-e/board-of-elections/voting-registration).
Another great resource in the city are our Political Action Committees. We have three PACs: The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, The Friends of Durham, and People’s Alliance. If you do not have time to do your own research, you can rely the PAC endorsements to help you decide which candidates you want to support (or not support).
The Herald Sun wrote an important article about how each PAC decides which candidates to endorse (http://www.heraldsun.com/news/local/counties/durham-county/article164163332.html). Many candidates have their own websites and social media accounts to help you learn about them.
In addition to online resources, there are opportunities to go hear the candidates in person. People’s Alliance hosted a candidate meet and greet earlier this month. Residents heard a few remarks from the mayoral candidates and mixed and mingled with the mayoral and City Council candidates. The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People held forums Aug. 17-18 at N.C. Central University. The Durham Democratic Women will host a forum on Sept. 10 from 2-5 p.m. at Fayetteville Street Elementary School. Take Back Durham is hosting a forum on Sept. 12 from 7-9 p.m. at 1007 W. Chapel Hill St. You can go to hear the candidates explain their vision for our city and decide for yourself which candidates will earn your votes.
Herald-Sun staff writer Virginia Bridges wrote an article showcasing the candidates (http://www.heraldsun.com/news/local/counties/durham-county/article163013513.html). These candidates are diverse and reflect the city we live in. That is very important. Our voters should reflect the city as well.
Finally, while it is easy to get caught up in the mayoral election, the City Council elections are just as important! Together the mayor and the City Council will lead our city into the future.
Andrea Benjamin is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at UNC Chapel Hill. She studies local elections and is working on a project on Politics in Durham. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org