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League of Women Voters host municipal election change forum tonight

No matter who we here at BCR ask, we seem to get one clear, consensus answer about the impact of the proposed elimination of primaries in this fall's municipal election:

No one really seems to know.

Or at least, no one's quite sure what the impact would be in this fall's election, which features a number of incumbents with pretty steady re-election track records -- or at least fairly strong apparent community support. Would this change lead to the ability of a third candidate to split voting bases, leading to upsets or unconventional outcomes? Would it create a throng of candidates vying to be what the Romans might have called (with different meaning) primum inter pares -- the squeaker first place out of relative equals?

Or might we just see the outcome that the dry-witted and übercompetent Durham election czar Mike Ashe noted, with Durham getting great leaders and lousy leaders from the same election process?

Monday night, we'll get to hear the public's opinion on the matter at City Hall, with the item appearing on the City Council agenda for the splendid seven to consider. In that spirit, the League of Women Voters is holding an a public forum at 7pm tonight at the downtown main library to discuss the proposed change, and what it could mean for the Bull City.

As the LWV notes in their press release, the proposal at hand for Durham is not the same as the instant run-off voting method that Cary and Hendersonville have piloted. In the so-called IRV system, voters rank their choices, with their back-up choices counted in the event no candidate reaches the required threshold, thus eliminating the need for a costly run-off election.

In Durham's case, the proposed method would be a simple plurality. Win more votes than all the other candidates running and you get the seat. Whether you accomplish that with 51% of the vote or 15% of the vote depends on how many candidates are running and how much parity there is between their draw.

Tonight's LWV panel will include:

  • Donald L. Horowitz, James B. Duke Professor of Law and Political Science
  • Robert P. Joyce, UNC Professor of Public Law and Government
  • Torrey Dixon of FairVoteNC
  • Bob Hall, Executive Director of Democracy NC



A simple plurality voting system would seem likely to result in elected officials with a weak mandate from the electorate. This could happen either because a candidate was elected with a small percentage in a large field of candidates, or with the support of a unified bloc while other candidates split the remaining less-organized votes.

I think instant runoff voting makes more sense. It avoids the scenarios above, while saving the cost of running separate primaries.


As the vice chairman of the Durham County Libertarian Party I am opposed to this change. IRV would be much better for the reasons Toby outlines above, but if it's a simple yes/no I would have to say no, because I think local politics is too often dominated by the Democratic party and I think the runoffs allow for the candidates to draw a greater distinction amongst themselves in the time between the spring and fall elections. If it's a yes, I suspect that we wouldn't actually save any money on the primaries because of the other items that are usually on the spring ballot (bond issues, statewide races, etc.).

That said, it's more accurate to say that the outcome is decided by the "big three" PACs, which do not necessarily fall along traditional Dem/Rep party lines.


The other thing I like about IRV , i.e., instant run-off voting, is that it favors candidates who appeal to the widest number of voters, either as a first or second choice candidate -- meaning polarizing candidates at one extreme or the other of the political spectrum are not able to take advantage of mathematical niches. I think it is particularly important to elect candidates on the local level who are not extreme in their views because, well, because nothing gets done if they are -- and a single person unwilling to work with other elected officials who have different views can really bring any sort of progress to a screeching halt.

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