Making Sense of the 2013 Election Results

With another Election Day behind them, our elected officials in Orange County are now tasked to turn their attention from the challenges of the campaign trail to the challenges of governing. But following a sleepy election cycle in which all mayoral candidates ran unopposed and election results show most races were uncompetitive across the county, what message should our electeds take with them as they prepare to take their seats at the dais for new sessions?

With just 11.72% of eligible voters casting ballots in 2013, it’s unclear what message voters are sending. Was municipal turnout its lowest in over 10 years because voters simply don’t see any local issues directly affecting their lives? If so, does that mean voters are content with the status quo of the towns, which is why they didn’t get to the polls in the first place? Or are voters simply apathetic and nothing more can be discerned from the low turnout figure?

Voter turnout in municipal elections, 2003-2013

Source: Orange County Board of Elections

If the election wasn’t a referendum on how the towns should be growing and developing at a time when each town is making critical decisions that will have profound effects on what the Orange County of the future looks like, what was it exactly? There aren’t easy answers to these questions, yet our elected officials still have to govern and make the sometimes-hard decisions that come before them with, perhaps, a less-than-clear picture of what our community wants from its local governments and for its future.

One thing I can’t help but wonder is why turnout was so low when so much emphasis has been placed on community engagement and public input throughout several recent development proposals in Orange County, particularly during the Central West process. At the end of the day, elections are referendums on the actions taken by our elected officials, the ultimate way for community members to have their say on how their town should be run. If our community is unwilling to take the time to weigh in by casting their votes for the people who hold the final decision in their hands, then of what use and value are long, drawn-out, and persistently-extended development processes? And why do some members of our community continually take up the cry of “We’re not being heard” when the time to be heard is ultimately at the ballot box?

As our elected officials make the decisions that will shape the future of our community over the next two years, I hope they’ll ponder the questions raised by this year’s election during their decisionmaking. And I hope they’ll use these election results as a reality check to ground them during many of the heated discussions and debates about change, growth, and development that will inevitably come before them.



 Just curious if these numbers include the Durham County voters?

I pulled these numbers straight from the Orange BoE site, so I don't believe the recent numbers include the Durham portion of Chapel Hill; however, I think the older numbers (2003 & 2005) *do* include the Durham County voters. Regardless, I don't believe including or excluding these voters substantially alters the total percentages.

I certainly think that you have to look at what was on the ballot during those elections. In 2003 there was a big year for bond referenda; both 2005 and 2011 were countywide election cycles; and 2009 was a heavily contested election cycle, especially for mayor. I think these factors greatly influence turnout and if people are paying attention. Especially since 2005 was a referendum as to whether or not Orange County Schools should implement a district tax and 2011 was the sales tax referendum that failed in 2010. Of course in a transient community we must always question how accurate the number of voters on the rolls reflect those who continue to live in Orange County, but I don't think this would influence turnout numbers, except for a few percentage points.

We want informed people voting. Those that don't vote are oblivious, uninformed, transient, impotently reactionary, naïve, etc. There's no reason to worry too much.  Certainly it's worth doing more to engage more citizens. It's no secret that government generated documents, charts, & maps seem more designed for the arcane world of planners than everyday people.  In the end, if folks don't engage, then we are left to weigh in. And those who show up deserve to have the power. 

Thank you for the gross generalization. There are plenty of folks out there who do not fit into any of your neat categories.

If you want people to make a decision, give them something meaningful to decide. Few turned out last Tuesday because there was a=tually very little to be decided.  I'm sure that those who barely lost (or barely won) would disagee, but the fact is that all of the candidates who won or narrowly lost last week were in a fairly narrow band on the global political spectrum. Most people didn't vote because the outcome was perceived as largely irrelevant. I suppose we could debate whether that perception is correct or not, but that's not exactly my point.Contrast last week's election with the 2008 Presidential race, where we had record turnouts in many places and among several different constituencies (young people, African Americans). People  perceived that Obama and McCain represented a meaningful difference in the direction the country would head - and they came out to vote (on both sides) in record numbers.This is not a criticism of the 2013 candidates, but rather a plea for understanding: I don't think we should blame low turnout on voters. We should blame it (if any blame is even required) on the narrow range of plausible choices with which we are presented. Locally, that narrow range is a function of the existence of a broad concensus that things are going pretty darn well in our towns. Nationally, the narrow range of choices is perhaps more of a function of structural aspects of our electoral system.For a much more dramatic example of what I am talking about, take a look at the mid 1990's Louisiana gubernatorial race when Democrat ____ Johnston was running against Republican white-supremacist David Duke. Johnston was an obviously corrupt candidate, but David Duke was an appalling and inveterate racist of the Adolf Hitler school (litterally) - a stark, though hideous choice. The people of Louisiana turned out in record numbers and Duke was defeated. A clear and meaningul choice resulted in an all-time high we need such stark choices in the OC? No. But if we ever faced such a choice, we would almost certainly get a very strong turnout. 

I completely agree with you, Mark. This election was mostly a status quo election with no threat to the status quo. The top five candidates for Town Council were two incumbents and three members of CH 2020. Just about every municipality had a similar situation regarding "staying the course." Additionally the school board was not a heavily contested race with no contests for mayor, which I also believe drive turnout. The act of voting is giving the consent of the governed, but so is the act of not voting. 


There are plenty of ways to apply various motivational theories from expectancy theory to Maslow's hierarchy of needs or many others to get some insights into why people vote or don't.If folks know how to vote, believe it's important to vote, and believe that it matters to vote and that it could make a difference, then they are more likely to. I think that takes plenty of polling sites and hours for the bigger election cycles, and a lot of education especially for the local election cycles.If your focus is more on the physiological and safety end of the pyramid, you might be a part of a group that most needs to be voting to help change things, but view voting as an exercise more on self-actualization side of things that you don't have time to prioritize.I think if we're worried about low turnout, the answer isn't to say, oh those are probably low information voters anyways and dismiss it. Our charge instead should be to ask how can we make systematic changes to make voting more accessible, increase voter education, and increase the number of folks willing to throw their hats in the ring.I don't know all the answers, but restoring same day registration, expanding early voting instead of the cuts that are coming, having election day be a holiday or on a weekend, more spending by the board of elections to educate voters, public campaign financing to make running for office more accessible, restoring pre-registration or even making pre-voter registration automatically offered upon entering high school, and other systematic changes seem like good first steps.Granted most of those require a Republican controlled legislature and Republican controlled state and local board of elections to implement those changes (or change over in who controls those bodies to folks who are more willing to expand voting). North Carolina has gone from one of the worst turnout states to one of the best in terms of voting. While you can't copy and paste strategies that made the state better to strategies that would make a county turnout better, I think you can take the lesson that while personal responsibility is important, systematic changes do make a difference.

I've analyzed the early vote for Orange County for November 5 (traditionally most students do early vote, and the election day voter file is not available yet). There were a total of 16 dorm residents who voted. There were a total of 47 persons age 18-22 who voted early in Chapel Hill. In Carrboro there were 7. This despite there being early vote at Ramshead and Carrboro Town Hall, though the 9-4 hours at Rams were hardly coducive to tunrout. As an outside observer, I will agree with others, there was NOT a competitive election takig place. There was no mayor's race to spark turnout, no sharp partisan divisions. and no youth candidate who ran a serious campaign (yes I know DC Swinton is 23). also, the DTH essentially ignored the election.Other university towns were not the same. smaller AppState Boone had 206 18-22 year olds voteearly for last week's election, and tiny Elizabeth City (enrollment 2255) had 226.  But both those cities had sharp challenges to voting rights this year. Boone had just one early vote site, and it was not on campus

Hundreds of voters in the ETJ's wanted to vote for candidates who have a huge influence on our neighborhoods and lives, but we have not had a say in municipal policies affecting us for more than 30 years.  So we voted for school board candidates instead.


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