Durham County

How do I vote in the Durham primary? A quick guide.

An early voting sign outside the Durham County Board of Elections Office.
An early voting sign outside the Durham County Board of Elections Office. ctoth@heraldsun.com

The city of Durham will pick a new mayor and up to three new council members this fall. Early voting in the primary starts soon, and the candidate field is large.

Early voting for Durham’s nonpartisan city primary election starts Thursday, Sept. 21. There are 188,652 registered voters in the city, but far fewer than that are actually expected to vote.

Derek Bowens, Durham County director of elections, said that in the 2015 muncipal primary, just 7.8 percent of registered voters voted. In November 2015, the general municipal election, it was more, but not by much – 10.6 percent.

Bowens said that could change this election cycle.

“Historically it has been lower. But this is the first time we’ve had a non-incumbent on ballot since 1997, and all our wards will be tested, including one incumbent not running,” Bowens said. So who might turn out on Oct. 10 for the primary and Nov. 7 for the general election?

“It’s hard to project. Over 20 percent would be nice. 100 percent would be great, but 20 percent or more would be a major increase,” he said.

There are 86,811 white registered voters in the city, 75,659 black voters, 524 American Indian voters and 25,651 voters who checked off “other” for race.

Of the 188,652 registered city voters, 108,587 are Democrats, 20,319 are Republicans and 58,855 are unaffiliated.

Mayoral field

For mayor, the candidates are Durham City Council member Steve Schewel, who is in an at-large seat he’ll maintain if he doesn’t win the mayoral seat.

Farad Ali, president of The Institute, which works for minority economic development, is a former city council member.

Pierce Freelon is a political newcomer who runs Blackspace downtown and leads hip-hop jazz group The Beast.

Other candidates are Rev. Sylvester Williams, Shea Ramirez and Tracy Drinker. Michael Johnson is still on the ballot but told The Herald-Sun this summer he had withdrawn from the race.

Ali, Freelon and Schewel have raised the most money in the race.

City Council field

City residents can vote for one candidate in each of the three City Council ward races. Voters do not need to live in those wards, but the candidates for each ward do.

In Ward 1, incumbent councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden faces challengers DeDreana Freeman, who is on the Durham Planning Commission, Brian Callaway and John Tarantino.

In Ward 2, City Council member Eddie Davis is not seeking re-election, and there are several candidates seeking his seat. Ward 2 candidates are DeAnna Hall, Dolly Reaves, Robert Fluet, LeVon Barnes, John Rooks Jr. and Rev. Mark-Anthony Middleton.

In Ward 3, challengers to incumbent City Councilman Don Moffitt are Lenny Kovalick, Vernetta Alston and Shelia Ann Huggins.

Why is there a primary?

In each race, the top two vote-getters move on from the primary to the general election. Unlike other cities like Raleigh, Durham is set up with a nonpartisan primary. So party affiliation is irrelevant to how they succeed in the primary.

“Under city charter, they break up the municipality into three wards and a provision of that charter states that each registered voter votes [for a candidate in each ward] regardless of where they [live],” Bowens said.

The three at-large council seats held by Schewel, Jillian Johnson and Charlie Reece do not come up for election until 2019.

PAC involvement

Beyond the candidates’ own campaign volunteers, political action committee endorsements can sway voters.

“Because candidates don’t run with party labels, the endorsements can help voters know what kind of interest is supporting them, and they may provide some money, but also the question is whether they provide people power,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina.

Of the big three PACs in Durham, the People’s Alliance endorsed Schewel, Freeman, Rooks and Alston. The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People endorsed Ali, Cole-McFadden, Middleton and Huggins. The Friends of Durham endorsed Ali, Cole-McFadden, Middleton and Moffitt.

Keith Bishop, political committee chair for the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, said the committee would support its endorsed candidates at all four early voting sites before the primary and the general election.

“We always review all of the candidates after the primary. If our endorsed candidates win, we don’t have to do as much. We’ll continue to support them unless they do something crazy,” Bishop said. “And if they don’t win, we’ll start over our [endorsement] process again.”

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan



Durham County Board of Elections Office

201 N. Roxboro St., Durham

N.C. Central University Law School

Turner Law Building

1801 Fayetteville St., Durham

South Regional Library

4505 S. Alston Ave., Durham

North Regional Library

221 Milton Road, Durham


Weekdays Sept. 21-22, Sept. 25-29 and Oct. 2-6: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Saturdays Sept. 23, Sept. 30 and Oct. 7: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Sundays Sept. 24 and Oct. 1: Noon to 4 p.m.


Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Locations: Look up your polling place and sample ballot at https://vt.ncsbe.gov/RegLkup/