The vanishing runoff

Apr. 01, 2014 @ 06:09 PM

The revelation this week that Durham voters have been operating under a misunderstood process for choosing school board members for a decade is a head-scratcher.

As best can be discerned from what we know, it was an innocent and even understandable unfolding of events. Legislation that merged the city and county school systems in 1992 specifically called for runoff elections if any candidate in the first round of voting didn’t get at least 40 percent of the vote.

And every four years since, election officials, candidates and voters have operated as if that were the case. Twice, runoffs have been needed to resolve race. The process flowed smoothly, and this year as the election season began everyone involved figured that was how events would proceed.

Wrong.

Turns out, while the concept of the runoff apparently was in the merger plan as local elected officials and citizens hammered it out, the language providing for it never made it into the statute the General Assembly passed to consummate the merger.

Michael Perry, director of the Durham County Board of Elections, has ruled there will be no runoff this year.  “The person who gets the most votes wins,” Perry told The Herald-Sun’s Greg Childress Monday.

And, technically, the runoffs since that inaugural 1992 election should never have been held.

In practical terms, that means when incumbent board member Steve Martin emerged from the May 2010 election with the most votes, he was elected. Second-place finisher Natalie Beyer overcame his lead and won in the runoff -- but the runoff wasn’t, at least under Perry’s interpretation, valid.

There’s no indication Perry’s discovery will retrospectively change the board’s composition. Martin, a gracious person who always has seemed deeply committed to what’s best for the system and the city, won’t challenge the four-year-old result.

“I would do nothing that would harm the work this board has done and the excellent work Natalie has done,” Martin told Childress Tuesday.

But the situation casts a potential shadow over any 4-3 vote the board has taken in the past four years.  Presumably any district resident would have standing to legally challenge one.

We prefer to think optimistically that is extremely unlikely.

But going forward, clarifying the process is critical. To not require that a winner receive a majority of the vote -- or at least a very substantial plurality -- raises the prospect of a relatively small minority of voters electing a board member. If the five candidates in District 2 this year, for example, split the vote relatively evenly, barely more than 20 percent of the voters could choose the winner. Given small turnouts, it’s conceivable a board member could have the support of fewer than 1 in 10 eligible voters.

School officials and county legal advisers are weighing how to conduct this year’s election, and perhaps a less upending conclusion will emerge. But it’s important that the General Assembly enact legislation to institute the runoff, or a similar procedure, well before we face another school board election.