When Durham held its municipal primary election last Tuesday, most registered voters didn’t show up.
Just one in 10 registered voters cast ballots in the Oct. 5 primary, in which candidates running for mayor and two City Council seats competed. The 10.02% turnout rate is in between the turnout rate for Durham’s last two municipal primaries.
An even smaller 8.96% turned out in 2019, when Durham Mayor Steve Schewel was running for re-election. In 2017, 13.47% of registered voters cast primary ballots.
Duke public policy professor Mac McCorkle expected turnout to be low, he said, because local elections in Durham are not partisan. Voters are less concerned about preventing threatening opposition candidates from winning, said McCorkle, a former Democratic consultant.
“Durham, being a one party town, is overwhelmingly Democratic,” he said. “You’re not going to get partisan conflict that you would in other races.”
There were also few policy conflicts to activate voters, he said. McCorkle named crime as the main area of difference among candidates, but said even “moderate verses progressive battles” still fall within the Democratic party.
“That’s not a recipe to get lots of engaged voters out in a race,” he added.
The absence of voters troubles McCorkle.
“There’s this question about, “Gosh, is this democratically legitimate? This is so low,” he said.
Since 9th Street spoke with McCorkle, mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero suspended her campaign, citing wide margins in the primary. Although Caballero’s second place primary finish advanced her to the general elections, she was far behind former judge Elaine O’Neal in votes received. Caballero’s campaign suspension means the primary effectively determined the outcome of the mayoral election, which O’Neal is now poised to win.
Durham County elections director Derek Bowens said that local elections typically don’t get many voters.
“I think low turnout is in part attributable to less national and state visibility and limited third party outreach,” Bowens wrote in an email to The 9th Street Journal.
When Durhamites voted in the March 2020 primary, which included heated races for president, senator and governor as well as several local elections, 39.97% of registered voters cast ballots.
National elections receive more media coverage and there are more efforts to engage voters through tactics such as canvassing and TV advertisements, Bowens said. He expects turnout for Durham’s Nov. 2 election will be similarly low.
For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules.
The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
At top: A Durham voter casts a ballot at Lakewood Elementary in the Oct. 5 municipal primary. 9th Street photo by Josie Vonk.