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Board of Elections proposes cost-saving plurality election format to City

A proposed move of Durham's municipal elections from the current primary-plus-general election format to a non-partisan plurality arrangement could have implications for the outcome of mayoral and Council elections in the Bull City, but the bottom line on the idea is, well, the bottom line.

This idea originated from the Board of Elections itself, and was communicated in a letter to the City Council's members yesterday. Under this method -- one of four municipal election methods approved by the state -- the candidate with the most votes during the general election itself would win the seat, regardless of whether they had a true majority or simply a plurality of votes.

The proposal, sure to raise some eyebrows in local political circles, was inspired both the biennial administrative process of informing the city clerk of the estimated cost of elections as well as by the current economic straits in which Durham finds itself.

The cost savings, which the BoE estimates could be as much as $185,000 for the 2009 election, would come through the elimination of the primary election. The City is responsible for reimbursing the Board for the expenses incurred in an election.

"We did it totally because it saves taxpayer money, and all of us are taxpayers," Durham elections chief Mike Ashe told BCR.

"Durham currently chooses the most expensive method [of elections].  Democracy can flourish, and we can save ton of money," Ashe said. "It isn’t chicken feed."

BoE board chair Ron Gregory noted in his letter to Council that turnout for municipal primaries has remained low since the mid-1990s; since 1995, it's ranged from 16.3% in 2003 to an anemic 10.6% in 2007's primary round.

Ashe noted that his board has for years thought that this change would be a beneficial cost savings opportunity for the City -- Durham would likely spend between $350,000 and $375,000 for a primary plus general election format -- but that the matter took on new interest as he was putting together the elections budget for city clerk Ann Gray.

Elections director Ashe noted that that late January communication to Gray re-initiated the discussion among his board, culminating in the February 3 letter to Council.

According to the letter, 487 cities in North Carolina use a non-partisan plurality system; 25 use the non-partisan primary and general election, with another 28 following a non-partisan election with run-off method. Only nine have partisan primaries and elections for municipal offices.

Ashe also noted that this was the first time under his eight years in Durham that the Board itself had initiated such a proposal for change in local election methods -- and stressed that no considerations have been made over who it would or would not advantage.

"I'm sure that politicians and politicos will dissect it in sixteen different ways to see who it helps and hurts, and we're not part of that. What it helps is the taxpayer," he said.

"We choose not to get involved in the weeds of local politics, other than the fact is -- I’m going to tell anyone who asks, all systems have given us good and bad [elected officials]," said Ashe.

"This is just less expensive."


S Gwaltney

Raising taxes should be out of the question. I am confused why increasing property tax in a recession and real estate sales are down 39% is wise or ethical. When retail is down, increasing sales tax also has a negative affect on sales. Both options should stay away from council's lips.

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