Long lines mark first day of early voting in NC in 2016
If recent history tells anything about the upcoming elections for Raleigh’s mayor and city council, it’s that very few people will vote – and close races might come down to just a few hundred votes.
Charlotte held its primary elections for local races earlier this month, and fewer than 8 percent of the city’s registered voters cast a ballot – even though the city’s political leanings mean that the Democratic primary is often the real challenge for candidates.
Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba University, said that in low-turnout elections the winner is typically is whoever is running for re-election.
“Usually it’s incumbents,” he said. “It’s folks with high name recognition. Those folks are going to have a built-in grassroots organization to begin with. Challengers tend to have a greater uphill battle in local elections.”
But that wasn’t the case in Charlotte, where the incumbent mayor Jennifer Roberts lost to a fellow council member. Two other council incumbents also lost.
Early voting in Raleigh begins Thursday for the Oct. 10 election, and the situation will be similar: An incumbent mayor facing a challenger with built-in support.
Bitzer said the recent Charlotte election could spell bad news for supporters of Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who is not affiliated with any political party, although she has been endorsed by Democrats in the past. But this year, for the first time, McFarlane lost the Wake County Democratic Party’s support to a challenger.
“If Raleigh is acting like Charlotte is, Democratic allegiance could be a potential swing in that race,” Bitzer said.
Low turnout could be key factor
But Raleigh doesn’t have partisan elections for city government, so there’s no primary election like the one in Charlotte. Whoever wins this election will be Raleigh’s next mayor until at least 2019. A runoff election would come Nov. 7 if no candidate gets 40 percent of the vote.
All seven of the city council seats are also up for grabs.
In the 2015 elections, the winners of two city council districts won by a margin of less than 300 votes, and a third council race had to be decided in a runoff.
In recent years, about 10 percent of voters have participated in Raleigh elections.
If that remains the case this year, around 35,000 people will have the power to pick the next mayor of the state’s second-biggest city, population 458,880. At issue are topics like affordable housing, public transportation, business recruitment and parks and recreation priorities.
McFarlane has been mayor since 2011, winning easily that year, in 2013 and in 2015. Despite her unaffiliated status, she had the support of the Wake County Democratic Party in all of those elections. With that gone in 2017, this election promises to be a harder fight.
Charles Francis, while less well known than McFarlane, gained momentum this summer after winning the local party’s endorsement.
There’s also a Republican running for mayor, Paul Fitts, although in recent years Republicans have not done very well in Raleigh mayoral races.
In Raleigh’s 2015 election, which McFarlane won with nearly 75 percent of the vote, registered Democrats cast 18,000 ballots – which was more than Republicans and unaffiliated voters combined.
Bitzer said this race might have larger implications for a state where unaffiliated voters – like McFarlane – are becoming more and more common.
“That will be a real test of the power of independent politicians versus party loyalty,” Bitzer said. “I think that will be a fascinating case.”
Issues and money
Francis has criticized McFarlane for being “led around by staff and bureaucrats while too often the voices of our citizens aren’t heard, respected or understood.”
McFarlane has countered that while she has been mayor, Raleigh’s quality of life has improved as both its population and jobs have increased.
“Everybody’s moving here, and quality of life is what’s driving that, what brings businesses here.”
Francis said if he’s elected mayor, he would increase spending to focus on affordable housing and raises for city employees.
Last year, McFarlane and the city council raised property taxes in part to expand affordable housing in Raleigh, from 200 units to 325.
Also during McFarlane’s tenure, the city created a police body camera policy and won a fight with the state government over 308 acres near downtown. The city now plans to make it into a massive park called Dix Park.
Behind the scenes, there’s a battle for donors.
Through the end of August, Francis had raised $134,000 and McFarlane had raised $119,000. Fitts had raised $200.
But while money helps, it doesn’t guarantee success. In Charlotte, Roberts out-raised both her major challengers, bringing in nearly $470,000 for her failed campaign.
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran
Not just Raleigh
Raleigh isn’t the only Triangle community holding elections this fall.
Cary is holding town council elections Oct. 10, and Durham will have its primaries that day.
Then, on Nov. 7, Durham will hold its general election along with Chapel Hill and most other cities and towns in the area. If any Raleigh or Cary races require a runoff election, those will also be on Nov. 7.
For more details on municipal elections anywhere in the state this fall, go to the N.C. State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement website.