The capital city’s council members aren’t on the ballot this year, and a majority of them say they wouldn’t mind skipping next year’s election, either.
A majority of Raleigh’s City Council say they’d prefer to serve longer terms and, with turnout low compared with presidential election years, some say they’re willing to reassess the city’s entire election format.
Residents currently vote on the city’s eight council members, including the mayor, in October on odd-numbered years. Council members serve two-year terms and every seat is up for election at the same time. While other major North Carolina cities have similar election practices, Raleigh’s stands alone in Wake County – something that may affect turnout.
“Since the (Wake) Board of Education is now even years, it has hurt turnout and I worry about full representation,” Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said. “On the other hand, do we really want local officials running with or against national politics?”
Like Baldwin, councilman Bonner Gaylord said he’s open to re-examining the council’s election years.
But most council members are against the idea, and there seems to be no consensus among political experts that bigger ballots mean better results for the public, said Andy Taylor, a political science expert who teaches at N.C. State University.
“I’m actually sort of ambivalent about this. I’m not sure which one’s best,” Taylor said.
Holding City Council elections on even years is likely to improve voter turnout, Taylor said. However, the flood of advertising from higher-profile campaigns lowers the odds that voters will hear much about local issues.
Then again, Raleigh already holds elections in October on odd-numbered years and the numbers are paltry. Roughly 36,000 residents voted in last year’s City Council elections, which makes up about 12 percent of Raleigh’s registered voters.
“You may run into the mayor or city council member on the street. That’s the level that has the most impact on an average citizen, and yet the average citizen doesn’t participate in their own governance,” said Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College in Salisbury.
More popular among council members than switching election years is extending term lengths.
Councilwoman Kay Crowder’s late husband, former councilman Thomas Crowder, cast the deciding vote against four-year terms in 2012. But Crowder said she disagreed with him on the issue.
“We disagreed on that. I thought 4-year terms are better,” she said.
“Quite frankly, as a new councilor, you’re still getting your feet wet before you’re up and having to run again,” she said. “You have to take your eye off the ball, slightly. Instead of being the work horse, you have to be a work pony.”
Councilmen Corey Branch and Dickie Thompson agree. The short election cycle could create more council turnover and government instability, they said.
“It’s kind of good in the fact that it gives a little more stability instead of having a new slate of people,” Thompson said.
“I think you would probably get bolder decisions because people would have time to work hard and implement them,” Branch said.
Councilman Russ Stephenson says he likes two-year terms because they give voters greater involvement in the democratic process. He’s the only council member who spoke out against longer terms. Councilman David Cox said he hasn’t formed an opinion on the matter, and Mayor Nancy McFarlane was out of town and unavailable for comment.
Raleigh doesn’t need to manufacture stability, Stephenson said, because the City Council has had little turnover over the past decade. Despite the city’s all-seats-at-once election format, the council hasn’t lost more than three incumbents since 2001.
The lack of turnover “means we stay close to the concerns of Raleigh citizens,” Stephenson said.
“If we have a great idea, we ought to be able to sell it to the voters in a 2-year time-frame.”
Other N.C. voting formats
Charlotte holds City Council elections in November every two odd-numbered years. Every City Council seat is up for election at the same time.
Durham City Council members serve four-year terms that are staggered. Elections are held on odd-numbered years in October.
Greensboro holds City Council elections in November every two odd-numbered years. Every City Council seat is up for election at the same time.
Winston-Salem holds elections every four, even-numbered years in November. Every City Council seat is up for election at the same time.