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It’s hard to find a big city with voter turnout as low as Charlotte's. Would nonpartisan elections help?

Fewer than 24,000 people voted in Tuesday's primary election for Charlotte City Council and mayor.
Steve Harrison
Fewer than 24,000 people voted in Tuesday's primary election for Charlotte City Council and mayor.

WFAE’s "All Things Considered" host Nick de la Canal spoke with political reporter Steve Harrison about the turnout in Tuesday’s primary elections for Charlotte mayor and City Council.

In a city with more than 482,000 eligible voters, only 23,676 went to the polls.

A lack of competition certainly played a role. But we want to go deeper and address why there’s a lack of competitive races.

Nick de la Canal: First, Steve, tell us about that lack of competition.

Steve Harrison: Sure, so, Mayor Vi Lyles didn’t have a serious challenger and the mayor’s race really drives turnout. In the races for the four citywide council seats, there were four clear favorites. And for the first time in almost 50 years, Republicans didn’t have a single primary, so GOP voters — who are 17% of city voters — were shut out.

But Nick, there are some who say the problem is much deeper than that.

Many Republicans — and even some Democrats — say the way Charlotte runs its elections has, in part, led to this apathy.

De la Canal: When you mean, how they run elections, what do you mean?

Harrison: Charlotte has had partisan elections since 1975.

Most of us just see this as normal, but it’s not.

As of this spring, there were just four cities and towns in all of North Carolina with partisan elections — Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Sanford and Lincolnton. And the legislature recently moved three small municipalities in western North Carolina from nonpartisan to partisan.

De la Canal: So we are really unusual in terms of North Carolina, but what about nationally?

Harrison: I looked at the nation’s 50 largest cities. And almost all of them also have nonpartisan elections.

By my count, only six other of those big cities have a system like Charlotte — with partisan elections, and separate primaries for each party. New York City is one.

But Los Angeles is nonpartisan. Houston. Atlanta. Even Chicago — the poster child for Democratic Party machine politics — has been nonpartisan since 1999.

The idea has historically been that running a city — doing things like picking up the trash and paving streets — isn’t really a partisan job.

De la Canal: So we are the nation’s 15th largest city, with nearly 900,000 people, and we had less than 24,000 people go to the polls Tuesday. How does that compare with those other big cities?

Harrison: When you compare Charlotte to other cities that hold elections in off-years, it’s hard to find big cities that have turnout as low as Charlotte.

Dallas, Texas, is close. It had an election in which the mayor had no opposition and 45,000 voters showed up. That turnout was about 7% — still higher than Charlotte.

Miami had only 27,000 people vote in its most recent mayoral election, although that was still nearly 10% turnout.

If past trends hold, turnout for Charlotte’s general election will be higher than 23,000 people, in part, because the school board is on the ballot.

De la Canal: A citizen task force recommended moving to nonpartisan elections two years ago. What happened to that?

Harrison: Yes, that committee made a number of recommendations, such as higher pay for council members and having nonpartisan elections.

Bryan Holladay, a city lobbyist, said having partisan elections has essentially locked out nearly 40% of city voters who aren’t Republicans or Democrats from running. Unaffiliated voters have to launch a petition drive to get on the ballot.

Holladay: "Not only does it not encourage people to vote it’s now so broken it’s disencouraging people to run for office. We’re seeing the lowest amount of people to run for City Council in a really long time."

Harrison: Democratic strategist Sam Spencer agrees. He says nonpartisan races, like the school board, allow for unaffiliated candidates to win office. He says those are candidates that can build alliances across both parties. That might be a more conservative Democrat or a more moderate Republican.

Although partisan elections have benefited the Democratic Party, Spencer says:

Spencer: "I’ve always been somebody who believes in the 'small d' Democratic process. And I don’t think you can get good governance when all of the decisions are made by fewer than 3% of Charlotte’s 900,000 residents."

Harrison: City Council members never seriously considered nonpartisan elections, They did increase their own pay, however.

De la Canal: And what are others saying about this?

Harrison: At-large City Council member Braxton Winston says switching to partisan elections would probably increase turnout some, but he says it’s not the biggest problem. He notes that roughly four-fifths of Charlotte voters are either Democrats or unaffiliated, and they can vote in the primary.

Winston: "So that means that most voters could have participated in the municipal primaries if they so choose. And they did not."

Harrison: Gerry Cohen, an elections expert and former attorney for the General Assembly, says Charlotte voters are apathetic, even in presidential elections.

Cohen: "And Charlotte and Mecklenburg County’s political culture is different than other places. 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?"

De la Canal: And Steve, one last question: What about the city elections in Charlotte that had the most voters?

Harrison: I looked at that, too. When Vi Lyles won her first term as mayor in 2017, nearly 122,000 people voted. That was huge for Charlotte.

But that turnout still pales compared with a lot of other cities and their mayor’s races, like Nashville, Seattle and Minneapolis.

So even when we are most engaged, we still aren’t that engaged.

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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.