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Durham’s municipal primary elections see low turnout

Dismal turnout characterized Durham’s 2009 municipal primary elections Tuesday with only 4.3 percent of registered voters casting their ballots.

The vote narrowed down the three city council candidates for Ward 1 and five candidates for Ward 2 to two in each race. Each pair of candidates will face off in the general election Nov. 3.

Mayor Pro Tempore Cora Cole-McFadden, who represents Ward 1 on the council, and 21-year-old Donald Hughes will face off in the general election after receiving 69.3 percent and 17.6 percent of the vote, respectively, according to preliminary results compiled by the Durham County Board of Elections. Ward 2 City Council Member Howard Clement received 60.1 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s primary and will face political newcomer Matt Drew, a Libertarian, who finished second with 12.5 percent of the vote.

“It’s pathetic,” said City Council Member Eugene Brown describing the low turnout and noting that there were only two races on the ballot. “One answer is that people are satisfied with the status quo and they expect the incumbents to win again.”

At the George Watts Montessori Magnet School polling station, voter participation as of 3:30 p.m. had reached 50 out of 2,936 active registered voters in the precinct, which includes East Campus.

Audrey Mitchell, who has been a precinct chief judge in Durham elections for more than 20 years, said no students had shown up to vote. She noted that she expected more voters to arrive as the work day ended, and 98 registered voters ultimately showed up to cast their ballots, according to unofficial results released later in the day.

“This is normal for the primary,” she said. “In fact, we might be doing a little better than we have been doing in primaries. I don’t know why people don’t think it’s important, but it is.”

Several election workers said people often fail to understand the importance of municipal elections and the impact the results have on their lives.

Michael Perry, deputy director of the Durham County Board of Elections, said although national elections often garner more participation, the impact of local races is much more immediate for the average voter.

“[City Council members] are the people who make the decisions on our police, fire, water and those types of things, but we don’t go out and vote for them,” he said.

Despite having a polling location on campus, the precinct at North Carolina Central University did not appear to fare any better in attracting voters to its polls. As of 4:30 p.m., 74 voters had cast their ballots, the majority of whom were NCCU students, said precinct chief judge Jackie Yarborough.

Markia Gray, a senior at NCCU, said she voted in Tuesday’s election because several of the candidates had campaigned on campus, despite what she called poor advertising for the election overall.

“The people who I voted for had been outside the Union trying to get the students’ attention,” Gray said, noting that the majority of students did not know the election was Tuesday. “If you don’t know, then you’re not going to vote.”

Cole-McFadden said prior to the polls closing she was confident she would move on to the general election, where she believes the turnout will improve.

“What I’m able to gather from folks is they seemed to be focused on Nov. 6 and not Oct. 3,” Cole-McFadden said, as she prepared to shuttle senior citizens to the polling station and did some last minute-campaigning at NCCU.