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Charlotte is one of the only NC cities with partisan elections. City Council isn't eager to change

Charlotte Council members voting in favor of doubling their term length.
City of Charlotte
The city of Charlotte is one of five North Carolina cities or towns with partisan elections.

There are more than 500 cities and towns in North Carolina. Of those, only five hold partisan elections for mayor and council, meaning a political party is next to each candidate’s name on the ballot.

Kinston, Lumberton and Sanford do it, along with Winston-Salem.

And Charlotte.

Some say that should change.

“There’s not a Republican or Democratic way to fill a pothole,” said Amy Peacock, who co-chaired a 2020 citizen committee that recommended Charlotte switch to nonpartisan elections — like the Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board. “Police, fire, trash, roads are not partisan.”

That group, the Citizen Advisory Committee on Governance, made a number of recommendations on how the city of Charlotte should change its governance.

The City Council has moved forward with some of the proposals, such as higher pay. In 2021, they raised their pay by 50%, so a City Council member now makes $52,500.

And they are moving forward with switching from serving two-year terms to four-year terms. Council will hold a public hearing on that on Monday and could ask voters to decide on longer terms in November.

But recommendations for term limits — and nonpartisan elections — have drawn little interest.

Giving more voters a voice, or backroom deals?

Former Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt, a Democrat, said nonpartisan elections would make more voters feel like they have a voice. Most City Council district races aren't competitive after the primaries, and Democrats have swept the at-large seats for the last few election cycles.

“I believe it would bring more people into the election process,” she said.

Eiselt won three consecutive elections under the partisan system, in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

But she often had a harder time winning the Democratic primary than the general election, where she drew support from Republicans. She would have likely benefited from nonpartisan elections, where all candidates ran against each other at once.

“As it is right now, with our primary system, the decisions are pretty much made in the primary and we get such a low turnout — sometimes 10% or below — that a very small minority of people are essentially deciding who will lead our city,” Eiselt said.

Early voting in the University area, at the Old Pier One in University City.
Erin Keever
Early voting in the University area, at the Old Pier One in University City.

Peacock is married to former City Council member Edwin Peacock, who was the last Republican to win a citywide election, in 2014.

Republicans trying to win today face long odds.

Democrats now make up 45% of registered voters in the city, compared with just 17% who are Republican. Most city council districts aren’t competitive and Democrats sweep the four at-large seats.

Democrat Braxton Winston, the current mayor pro tem, said he’s open to a nonpartisan election — but he isn’t pushing for it either.

“I wouldn’t be opposed to it,” Winston said. “The best ideas need to win. There are many different ways to run an election — I’d like to look at ranked-choice voting. I think there is still more work to do. That’s the beautiful thing about democracy.”

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Jane Whitley is the chair of the Mecklenburg Democratic Party. Under her tenure, Democrats have won almost all countywide and citywide races.

If the city went nonpartisan, she said party insiders would meet behind closed doors to make endorsements if multiple Democrats were running for the same seat.

“If we did not have a primary so that the Democrats in Mecklenburg County could select their candidates, we would do it through the county executive committee,” she said. “And I feel that it would be more fair and more democratic for all Democrats in the county to select the candidate.”

Nonpartisan elections wouldn't eliminate political parties from the process, of course. If the mayor and City Council races were nonpartisan, both Republicans and Democrats would still try to inform their voters by handing out party recommendations at polling places.

Shorthand for busy voters

Nationally, over two-thirds of the largest U.S. cities also have nonpartisan elections, though some — like New York, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia — do have party labels at the ballot box.

Aaron Houck, of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute, said partisan races can help voters. With dozens of races on some ballots, an "R" or a "D" on a ballot can serve as useful shorthand.

“It’s really hard to inform yourself as a voter about every possible issue, every possible position on every possible issue and about every possible candidate for every possible issue,” he said. “And parties serve as a really important information source for voters — this is what this person believes generally, they have this set of values.”

The last time the city changed its governance was 46 years ago. That’s when Charlotte added seven district seats to help African Americans win more seats on council, breaking the lock white voters held by only having at-large representatives.

City Council is also considering adding an eighth district seat to City Council, bringing the total number to 12. That’s similar to a recommendation made by the committee.

But the group also proposed eliminating one of the four at-large seats to keep the total number of council members at 11.


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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.