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Here's another 50th out of 50 ranking for Charlotte: Voting

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Ely Portillo
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WFAE
A polling place at Sardis Presbyterian Church in southeast Charlotte was largely empty for this year's municipal election.

This story first appeared in WFAE reporter Steve Harrison's weekly newsletter. Sign up here to get the news first in your inbox.

The turnout for last week’s Charlotte primary election for mayor and City Council was terrible. It was less than 5% of eligible voters — Democrats and unaffiliated.

And it was about 4% of all registered voters, which includes Republicans and Libertarians, who couldn’t participate because they didn’t have primaries. I included them because you can argue that all voters should have been allowed to go to the polls, as they are in most cities.

I wanted to know: How bad was turnout?

I looked up the most recent municipal election results for the nation’s 50 largest cities. By my research, Charlotte’s September primary was 50th out of 50 in terms of turnout.

There are several things that land us at the bottom.

The first is our form of government.

Charlotte has a “weak mayor,” which means the day-to-day operations of the city are run by a professional manager. Cities with "weak mayors" tend to have lower turnout than cities where the mayor is the chief executive.

Voters are probably wise that "weak mayors" just don’t have that much power.

Having a professional manager has historically served Charlotte well, and that’s not going to change.

But there are two choices Charlotte has made that discourage people from voting.

1. Having elections in odd years.

Most big cities, including Charlotte, elect their mayor and City Council in odd years, in so-called “off-year elections.”

Gerry Cohen, a former attorney for the North Carolina General Assembly and an elections expert, said if Charlotte wants more people to vote then it should align its elections with the federal cycle. He said the whole notion of “off-year elections” started more than a century ago as a way to limit elections to the very few, excluding immigrants, the poor and African Americans.

Jeremy Markovich wrote about odd-year elections last week in his newsletter "North Carolina Rabbit Hole."

Other U.S. cities like Portland, San Diego and San Jose, have city elections in even-numbered years and align with the federal election cycle. Raleigh recently switched to even years.

2. Having a partisan election.

This is a Charlotte oddity.

As of this spring, there were only four municipalities in North Carolina that list a candidate’s political party next to their name on the ballot. (The General Assembly recently shifted three towns in western North Carolina from nonpartisan to partisan.)

Most of the nation’s 50 biggest cities also have nonpartisan elections, like Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Boston, Atlanta and Denver. In fact, I could only find six other big cities that have primary elections for each party, such as New York City.

Partisan elections in Charlotte started in 1975.

It worked OK for several decades because the Democratic and Republican parties were of equal strength or near-equal strength. But in the last decade or so, the GOP has collapsed in the city, which means the Democratic primary — which is closed to GOP voters — has become the de facto general election.

Another problem is that partisan elections make it very difficult for unaffiliated voters to run unless they want to launch a petition drive to get on the ballot.

Democratic Party activist Sam Spencer said it’s time for the city to switch to nonpartisan elections. He said unaffiliated voters could be elected to the City Council in a nonpartisan system, just as they have been to the school board.

That gives voters more choices, he said.

He said you can’t have good government when politicians are picked “from less than the 3% of the city’s overall population.”

As Charlotte’s low turnout was being discussed on social media, some people waved off the problem, saying that it was “just a primary election” and that there were hardly any competitive races.

But one could look at the situation a different way.

Let’s say the city built a poorly-designed road that led to a high number of car crashes.

We would never dismiss those crashes as acceptable because “that’s the way the road was designed.”

Why do we do the same for our local election?

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Other cities with terrible turnout

For fun, here is a look at recent turnout in some other cities.

  • Indianapolis, which is almost the same size as Charlotte, has partisan primaries for mayor and votes in odd years, like Charlotte. In this year’s election, 48,000 people voted in the Democratic primary and nearly 30,000 people voted in the Republican primary. It has a “strong mayor.” (Less than 24,000 people voted in last week’s Charlotte primary.)
     
  • Philadelphia had nearly 250,000 people vote in the Democratic primary for mayor in May. The city’s general election is in November. It has a “strong mayor.”
     
  • In Dallas, the incumbent mayor, Eric Johnson, ran for a second term this year with only a write-in candidate opposing him. He got 98% of the vote. Turnout was a little more than 7%, with 45,000 people voting.

    Because Dallas is nonpartisan, there was no primary. It’s also a “weak mayor” city.
     

  • In Miami, Francis Suarez won reelection with nearly 80% of the vote in a nonpartisan race. A little more than 27,000 people voted, which equaled a 12% turnout. Miami has a “strong mayor.”
     
  • In Las Vegas, less than 27,000 people voted in the most recent nonpartisan mayoral election, in 2019. That was a 7% turnout. Las Vegas has a “weak mayor.”

    Nevada has passed a law shifting the election to even-numbered years to increase turnout and save money.

City Council doesn’t want change

Two years ago, a city-appointed governance committee recommended a number of changes to how Charlotte is governed.

Among the proposals: Higher pay. Four-year terms. Another district seat. And switching to nonpartisan elections.

Council members quickly voted to give themselves more money. They considered four-year terms and then decided against it.

They never seriously talked about having nonpartisan elections.

Council members and the Democratic Party have little incentive to change a system that’s worked well for them.

Democrats hold 10 of the 12 elected seats (including mayor) and could win an 11th seat in November.

If you are an elected official, why open yourself up to more people who could defeat you?

The Charlotte City Council voted Monday to name Braxton Winston as mayor pro tem.
City of Charlotte
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The Charlotte City Council

Two more thoughts on the issue

1. Would a change to nonpartisan elections raise questions about racial fairness?

In 1977, Charlotte created some single-member districts to diversify the City Council and make it easier for African Americans to be represented.

Today, the city of Charlotte is 35% Black and 40% white-non-Hispanic, according to the most recent census.

But of the 12 elected officials (including the mayor), nine are Black.

African Americans are over-represented based on their population, in part, because of the partisan system: The most important election is the Democratic primary, in which half of the voters are Black. This comes after decades in which Black people were severely underrepresented in elected office, barred by poll taxes, literacy tests and other Jim Crow-era discriminatory laws.

But no matter your race, if you win the Democratic primary in most council races, the general election is a layup.

Moving to a nonpartisan system would not only boost registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters, it would also likely boost white voters. And that means possibly taking away power from Black officials and voters.

2. Are Charlotte voters just … lame?

Cohen thinks so.

He points to recent federal elections in which Mecklenburg County had trailed the state in turnout.

“Charlotte and Mecklenburg County’s political culture is different from other places,” he said. “I don’t know what the reason is, but there has been a lot of hand-wringing among Democrats: Why is Mecklenburg’s voter turnout so much lower than Wake’s?”

In the 2022 midterms, Wake’s turnout was 56% compared with 45% in Mecklenburg.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.