Reeves Peeler. Credit: Brett Villena

Raleigh’s November 2022 elections were the first of their kind in modern history: for the first time since the early 1900s, voters elected a mayor and city council in an even-numbered year.

This change, which required the North Carolina General Assembly to pass a law, came at the request of the Raleigh City Council and Mayor Baldwin. Lawmakers obliged. It had the effect of nearly tripling the notoriously low voter turnout from former municipal elections previously held in odd-numbered years (a vestige of Jim Crow in several Southern states). In 2019, 54,566 votes were cast for Raleigh mayoral candidates. In 2022, 153,472 votes were cast for the same race.

Realigning the municipal elections was a step in the right direction for more democratic reform, albeit an imperfect one. The decision should have been made with public input and included a 2021 special election for a one-year term so that local leaders weren’t awarding themselves an extra year in office. Nonetheless, it was a net win for voters since it allowed us to be a part of the most inclusive election in our city’s history, with more voters participating in our local democratic process than ever before.

Unfortunately, Raleigh still has a long way to go. The recent municipal election saw an increasingly concerning stain appear on our democratic record: money.

Raleigh’s 2022 election saw unprecedented amounts of cash flowing into candidate coffers, with nearly $2 million raised across all local offices.

While this kind of money seems completely off kilter to elect our part-time mayor and councilors, possibly the most troubling part of this trend is how wildly unbalanced the finances became between certain opponents.

According to the NC Board of Elections Pre-Election Report ending on October 24:

  • Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin raised $730,802, more than 11 times that of her second-place opponent, Terrance Ruth, who raised $64,093.
  • David Knight raised $219,308, more than 19 times that of his opponent, Councilor Christina Jones, with $11,390.
  • Cat Lawson raised $77,253, almost 8 times as much as her opponent, Councilor Mary Black, with $9,897.
  • Councilor Corey Branch brought in $68,616, nearly 15 times that of his closest opponent, Wander Hunter, with $4,707.

Raleigh’s campaign contribution limit was $5,600 per individual for the 2022 election. From Baldwin’s $730,802, she received 40 unique max-out contributions. Baldwin also had 56 unique donors give at least $5,000 and 524 unique donors, making her average donation $1,394, while Ruth had 222 unique donors, resulting in an average donation of $288.

Since the General Assembly raised North Carolina’s statewide individual campaign contribution limit this year to $6,400 (done automatically every two years in accordance with inflation rates), we now must prepare for a 2024 municipal campaign cycle that could see even more galling sums injected into our local democratic process.

Should Raleigh leaders ever decide to introduce a primary election for municipal offices (as Durham has), state law would allow an individual to donate $6,400 to a candidate during the primary, then another $6,400 to the same candidate should they reach the general election, resulting in $12,800 per election cycle.

Individual donations of this size and frequency stand to significantly sway our local elections. The most recent median household income measure for Raleigh was $72,996. One $6,400 contribution amounts to almost 9 percent of what

the median Raleigh family brings home in a year. A system that effectively drowns out the contributions of even the median income Raleigh citizen dampens the ability of regular citizens to participate in a government that is supposed to be run by and for the people. And a campaign finance system that allows the extremely wealthy and profit-motivated interests to force this kind of undue influence over our local elections is simply undemocratic.

This year, Raleigh’s council will likely recommend several changes to our local electoral processes. While there are many ways to improve campaign finance laws, Raleigh should begin with lowering our individual campaign contribution limit to an amount that doesn’t drown out the voices of low- and middle-income residents. But if we as a community decide we want to start limiting campaign contributions, where is a good place to start?

Other U.S. cities and even Southern states showcase smart ways to limit the influence of extreme wealth over local elections, such as:

  • Seattle, WA: An individual contribution limit of $300 for city council and $600 for mayor
  • Austin, TX: A $450 individual limit for local offices
  • Portland, OR: A $508 individual limit for local offices
  • Chapel Hill: A $378 individual limit for local offices
  • Minneapolis, MN: A $600 limit for offices representing districts with fewer than 100,000 people and a $1,000 limit for districts with more than 100,000 people. Minneapolis also limits donations in nonelection years to $250.
  • Florida: Limits all municipalities to $1,000 per individual, while state-level offices have a $3,000 limit.

Creating policies that consistently foster a fair and transparent process will do the dual work of strengthening the community’s trust in both Raleigh’s and the state government’s elections and will drive more citizens to participate in elections and vote. There is no reason Raleigh shouldn’t be the role model for the rest of the nation.

Austin, Texas, has been one such role model in outlining democratic values. Its city code states: “The proper operation of a representative democracy requires that elected public officials exercise independent judgment, act impartially, and remain responsible to the people …. Citizen participation in the operation of City election campaigns will enhance a broad based electoral process accountable to all citizens rather than a privileged few …. The public should have justified confidence in the integrity of its government.”

We must continue to foster fair and transparent elections that don’t favor a particular party, class, or demographic. By moving municipal elections from odd to even years, Raleigh took a step toward doing just that. But we can still improve.

Let’s enumerate our principles and values that are so vital to a functioning and fair democracy. Let’s build a strong foundation for future generations who will vote, volunteer, organize, and run for office years from now. And let’s write smart policies that create a more level playing field for present and future generations.

Reeves Peeler is a community organizer and former campaign manager who lives in Raleigh.

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