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‘It’s kind of dispiriting’: Durham’s municipal primary elections see low voter turnout levels

<p>Only 10.18% of registered voters in Durham County cast a ballot in the municipal primary elections.</p>

Only 10.18% of registered voters in Durham County cast a ballot in the municipal primary elections.

After a record-breaking turnout for the 2020 presidential election, polling booths across Durham County were nearly empty for this year’s municipal primary races. 

Municipalities across North Carolina held closed primary elections on Oct. 5 to narrow down the ballot before the general election on Nov. 2. However, only 10.18% of registered voters in Durham County cast ballots in the primaries.

This voter turnout rate is actually higher than that of the 2019 municipal elections, which saw a county-wide turnout rate of 8.96%. However, voter turnout in Durham County for the 2020 presidential election was 73.86%—a much more imposing figure.

Associate Professor of History Gunther Peck noted that smaller-scale municipal elections often struggle to bring voters to the polling site. 

“On the one hand, it's kind of dispiriting, except that it's higher in this low turnout election than it was in the prior one,” Peck said. “It is an interesting question about why people don't vote in off year elections, but actually I think there was actually a fairly sizable turnout.” 

In 2017, with municipal elections following a similarly contested presidential race, 13.47% of Durham voters came to the polls for the primary and 18.84% cast a ballot in the general election. 

“The ground game is even more important in local municipal elections, because this way, your vote counts even more than normal,” Peck said. 

Peck credits the remarkable turnout in favor of Democratic mayoral candidate Elaine O’Neal, who is endorsed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, to the “more motivated working class Black population and citizenry voting.”  

Following a period of dramatic election participation and engagement on campus, it appears that many Duke students are not voting in local races. Young people between ages 18 and 25 had the lowest turnout across all age groups: a mere 536 college-aged individuals voted in the primary. 

“Duke students did not vote,” Peck agreed. “One of the challenges for Duke students is to think that voting is actually a habit you do every year, and not just every four years, and that it shouldn't just be the president, but local politics make more of an impact than the national really, in terms of everyday experience.”

Early voting for the general elections began last Thursday; on Friday, the Durham County Board of Elections tweeted that only 823 out of 204,659 eligible voters had cast their ballot for the general elections. 

The deadline to register to vote for the Nov. 2 election was Friday, Oct. 8 at 5 p.m. The Durham County Board of Elections must receive absentee ballot requests by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 26 to provide absentee ballots in time for the general election. 

One-stop early voting will be held until Oct. 30 at five locations across the county. Voters in Durham County can utilize the Early Voting Site Locator Dashboard to locate their nearest early voting site, view wait times and find public transportation options. 


Kathryn Thomas

Kathryn Thomas is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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