What I’m Looking for in Durham’s Election [Corrected]

[Like the email you received this morning, minus a dumb mistake.]

Correction: In the newsletter I sent earlier this morning, I suggested that Durham candidates who win a majority in October don’t have to run again in November. That’s wrong—more specifically, that’s how Raleigh does it. In Durham, no matter the topline numbers, the top-two finishers in each race will face each other on Nov. 2. I’ve edited the item to correct the error, which was significant enough—and, sigh, significantly embarrassing enough—to merit a second email. Thanks to Sen. Mike Woodard, a former Durham City Council member, for the correction.

You can see the second and third items in this morning’s newsletter here.

If you live in Durham and didn’t vote early, you have until 7:30 tonight to do your civic duty.

  • Here’s my rundown of the mayoral, Ward 1, and Ward 2 primaries from two weeks ago.

  • You can find your polling place by entering your name here.

  • Unlike during early voting, you cannot register and vote at the same time. But if you are registered, you do not have to have an ID.

What will happen: Mark-Anthony Middleton will advance easily in Ward 2. Elaine O’Neal will square off against Javiera Caballero for mayor and Marion T. Johnson will face incumbent DeDreana Freeman in Ward 1 on Nov. 2. Beyond that, my crystal ball is cloudy.

  • As to who gets more votes for mayor and in Ward I, I’m not sure. People’s Alliance-endorsed candidates have tended to prevail in recent years. If they were also endorsed by the INDY or the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, their victory was a lock. But this year, the INDY backed the Durham Committee/Friends of Durham slate, which includes a strong mayoral candidate in O’Neal and incumbents Freeman and Middleton.

  • The PA, along with the Durham Association of Educators and Durham For All, backed Caballero (a last-minute entrant) and Johnson. (The PA backed Middleton, though the others didn’t endorse in Ward 2.)

  • The election will be a test for the competing factions. The Committee has wanted to take the more influential PA down a peg for years, but especially after three PA-aligned county commissioners voted earlier this year not to renew the contract of county manager Wendell Davis.

What I’m watching:

  1. Turnout in the heavily Black precincts in Southeast and East Durham that went for Farad Ali in the 2017 mayoral election, the last (almost) interesting campaign the city had for the top job. If they show up big, O’Neal has a good chance of becoming mayor.

  2. Whether O’Neal, a former judge backed by the conservative—though, of late, barely noticeable—Friends of Durham, chips away at Schewel’s 2017 margins in the suburban parts of South Durham and the white liberal precincts northwest of downtown that were Schewel’s base.

  3. Whether Caballero expands and mobilizes the city’s Latino vote. As of Sept. 1, Durham had about 8,200 registered voters who identified as Hispanic. If Caballero, who would be the first Latina mayor, is getting more Latinos to the polls, we’ll probably see it in precincts 5, 38, 30-1, 34-1, 54, and 23.

  • Caveat: The more popular early voting becomes, the fuzzier this sort of tea-leaf-reading is.

Predictions: Take these for whatever they’re worth, which might not be much.

  • FWIW: I’ve already voted, and my preferences don’t necessarily reflect these predictions.


  • Elaine O’Neal gets more votes than Javiera Caballero—something like 46–43, with the five also-rans accounting for the remaining 11%.

  • Why: Caballero was appointed to the city council in 2018, has only been on the ballot once, and got into the mayor’s race late. O’Neal is a better-known and well-respected quantity.

  • Why I could be wrong: Endorsements from Mayor Steve Schewel and other prominent progressives will help Caballero. And the People’s Alliance has been good about getting out its supporters in October elections.

Ward 1

  • Marion Johnson gets slightly more votes than incumbent DeDreana Freeman—perhaps 51–47, with the others getting about 2%.

  • Why: Johnson has the enthusiastic backing of progressives. Freeman hasn’t engendered this kind of ride-or-die support that I’ve noticed. This race will probably be decided by fewer than 1,000 votes.

  • Why I could be wrong: Freeman is the incumbent. Incumbency has advantages, including name recognition. She also upset an incumbent four years ago. You don’t do that without knowing how to win a tough campaign.

Ward 2

  • Mark-Anthony Middleton will get 65–70% of the vote, easy. The number-two candidate doesn’t matter.

  • Why: Because he’s not facing a serious challenge.

  • Why I could be wrong: I’m not.

Tell me I’m an idiot

One last thought: In October 2019, turnout in Durham County was less than 9%. In Wake County, where Raleigh and Cary voted, turnout was about 17%. About 54,000 people cast ballots in Raleigh.

  • Raleigh responded to its chronic low turnout by moving its elections to November of even years—not a perfect plan, in my view, given the lack of a primary or runoff, and not executed perfectly, but certain to drive more voters to the polls.

  • When Durham’s at-large council elections went to a November runoff in 2019, joining the mayor’s race and a housing bond on the ballot, about 35,000 people voted.

Off-year elections have advantages. Campaigns don’t require a ton of money to break through election-year noise, and voters are more likely than not to be at least somewhat engaged with the issues facing the city. But they have disadvantages, too.

  • New research in the American Journal of Political Science indicates that governments formed in so-called off-cycle elections tend to be less responsive to majority preferences and more responsive to interest groups.

The study found that local governments formed in “off-cycle” years (like 2021) are less responsive to the majority’s preferences and more responsive instead to organized interest groups, particularly when the interest groups’ desires oppose those of the masses. …

“When turnout for local elections is lower, that opens opportunities for groups that are organized to get their people out to vote and elect those who are going to push policy in a way that benefits the interest groups,” said BYU political science professor Adam Dynes, a co-author of the paper. “So election timing ends up being pretty important.”

Of the more than 25,000 municipalities in the U.S., about 75% hold their elections off-cycle, including many large cities like Chicago. When local residents don’t vote—and in off-cycle elections, it’s common for fewer than a quarter of eligible voters to participate—they relinquish significant power, Dynes observed.

Durham’s council majority has aligned with the People’s Alliance, which isn’t to say it’s been unresponsive to voters’ wishes. With turnout this low, it’s difficult to gauge “the will of the people.” You only know “the will of whoever showed up.” That’s the point.

  • Since only a small fraction of residents vote, politicians don’t have to consider what the others think.

  • In fairness, based on what I’ve seen, Durham’s electeds try to look out for everyone. But being human, they’re bound to be influenced by the voices closest to them, and the ones making the most noise.

  • Chapel Hill—whose elections I plan to discuss later this week—has been an even clearer example of the interest-group dynamic.

Durham is considering raising council members’ salaries so that more people can afford to run for office. While they’re at it, council members might want to look at moving elections to even years—perhaps adopting ranked-choice voting and holding elections during spring primaries. (If they want to get crazy, I’d also suggest eliminating citywide ward elections, but that’s for another day.)

  • The future of Durham—fast approaching 350,000 people, already one of North Carolina’s cultural and intellectual hubs—is too important to be determined by the handful who vote in elections most of the city doesn’t realize are happening.