Six months ago, behind closed doors, the Raleigh City Council voted to postpone the November election to 2022, effectively giving current members an extra year in office.
That alone was enough to prompt outrage from the public. But what happened next seems to have permanently damaged the trust many Raleigh residents have in their government. In that same session, council members secretly voted to make the change permanent, moving the election from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years to coincide with federal elections.
In the long run, that change may be beneficial—it’s expected to increase voter turnout by up to 370 percent. But the way the decision was made drew mass criticism from Raleigh residents, voter advocacy organizations, and even Governor Roy Cooper.
Now, the city council is considering even more changes to local elections, including extending the terms of council members from two to four years.
“The well has been poisoned just a little bit with what happened,” says Caroline Fry, interim advocacy director at Democracy NC. “There’s a lot of distrust out there right now.”
Fry says she hopes the decisions the Raleigh City Council is making are driven by the people they represent.
“It’s really important to figure out why the changes are necessary,” she says. “Is this a direct result of things they’re hearing from their constituents? Where is this coming from?”
The proposed changes come from 10 people appointed last year by Raleigh officials to study how best to modernize city elections. The formation of the study group was prompted by a citizen petition. The group, which includes local community activists and veterans of city boards and commissions, also was tasked with reexamining the salaries of the mayor and council members.
They came up with six unanimous recommendations that, if enacted, would change how elections are held, how much the mayor and city council members are paid, and how many members sit on the city council. One of the recommendations—that elections be moved to even-numbered years—has already become law. The group also recommended that the city
• extend the terms of council members from two to four years;
• hold staggered elections in which district council members would face reelection one year and the mayor and at-large council members would face reelection the next year;
• increase the size of the city council from eight to nine by adding one district seat; • increase the mayor’s pay by 49 percent— from $24,550 to $36,511—and the pay of each council member by 66 percent—from $18,021 to $29,848; and
• create a program to educate voters and encourage them to vote.
According to one online poll, which had garnered a little more than 1,000 responses by mid-December, most people favor increasing the salaries of the Raleigh mayor and council members. The same poll, which was conducted by the city, showed that more than 65 percent of people favor increasing the city council’s size to nine members by adding either a district or an at-large seat
On the other hand, poll participants were overwhelmingly opposed to extending terms from two to four years. About 59 percent of people also disagreed with staggering the elections of council members.
Gerry Cohen, an adjunct instructor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, cautions against giving the poll too much weight, however. Per the numbers, only about 0.2 percent of Raleigh residents participated.
“I wouldn’t assume who is for and who is against anything,” says Cohen, citing the 1972 referendum that created the current rules for Raleigh elections.
Back then, he says, “The News & Observer editorialized against [the referendum] and the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association organized against it. From what I’ve researched, everyone was against it except the voters, who overwhelmingly passed [it] … by a 60-to-40 margin.”
Most voters would welcome a chance to decide on these issues themselves, but they may not get the chance. Although the city council has sought some public input using the online poll and holding several “listening sessions” in the community, council members have the power to enact election changes themselves through a simple vote.
To get election changes in front of voters, Raleigh residents would have to petition for a referendum. The petition would need about 5,000 signatures—or that of 10 percent of voters who turned out in the previous municipal elections.
Ziya Gizlice, like many poll participants, was critical of the way Raleigh officials are considering election changes.
“This whole process, to me, is full of conflict of interests,” Gizlice wrote in the comments section of the poll. “Extending your own terms, appointing a committee to recommend to you what you want.”
The pros and cons: moving elections to even-numbered years
When it comes to the election changes themselves, there are arguments for and against every proposal. Many elected bodies, including the Wake County school board and Winston-Salem City Council, have moved their elections to even-numbered years in an effort to increase turnout and have been very successful, says Cohen.
In the Wake County school board’s last odd-numbered election cycle, only 125,000 votes were cast. In 2020, that number increased fourfold to 500,000, says Cohen. Although there was some roll-off, in which people who voted for president left the bottom of their ballot blank, it wasn’t significant overall.
“From the top to the bottom of the ballot, [the number of voters] dropped from 700,000 to 500,000,” says Cohen. “But you have to compare that with the 125,000 who voted in the 2013 cycle. There was some fatigue, but you still have four times as many people voting.
“When [people] say [voters] wouldn’t be interested in November, well, there’s no facts to bear that out at all.”
Another criticism of moving elections is that there will be an influx of uninformed voters. In speaking to other voter advocates, Fry found some were worried about presidential campaigns drowning out local races, she says.
“We don’t want the big federal races to overshadow the local races,” she says. “In odd years, there’s oxygen for local races the way that there’s not in presidential election years, when you turn on the TV and it’s just nonstop [campaigning].”
In an effort to keep voters informed, the study group recommended creating a voter education and engagement program. The city could email voters about important election dates, create and give out a voter guide with information about candidates, and campaign to encourage people to register to vote.
Extending term limits to four years
Of North Carolina’s 552 city and town councils, 393 use four-year terms—about 71 percent of the state’s municipal governments. That pattern continues in cities with more than 25,000 people, like Raleigh. Of those 34 city councils, 25 use four-year terms.
Members of Raleigh’s study group recommended the capital city follow suit, arguing that two-year terms are too short for effective governing. Since local policy changes and development projects are often years-long endeavors, some say two-year term limits disrupt the continuity of such initiatives. Additionally, if council members are under constant pressure to campaign and fundraise, they may be more open to influence by lobbyists.
On the other hand, shorter term limits could keep council members more accountable and curb the influence of money in politics by guaranteeing officials will face reelection every two years.
“If NC legislators can all stand for election every two years and U.S. congress members can all stand for election every two years, so can Raleigh’s mayor and council,” wrote one poll participant, Timothy Niles. “Expanding the terms to 4 years is a simple attempt to give people time to forget about poor decisions before a councilor comes up for election and accountability.”
Almost all cities that use four-year terms also have staggered elections, wherein some city council members face reelection one year and others face reelection the following year. Theoretically, holding staggered elections would prevent an entire city council from being ousted at once, allowing the remaining members of the board to continue long-term initiatives.
“The argument for staggered terms is that you shouldn’t have to risk a turnover of all the board members at once,” Cohen says. “The other thought is that if the voters want to make a wholesale change, why stop them from doing that?”
Increasing pay for the city council
Although sitting on the city council is technically a part-time job, demands put on members often exceed 20 or 30 hours per week. Members of the study group suggested pay raises to more closely match the pay given to mayors and council members in cities of a similar size. They also hope that by raising pay the barriers for lower-income candidates will be reduced.
About 57 percent of people who responded to Raleigh’s online poll agreed the mayor and city council members should receive the suggested raises. Some Raleigh residents, however, took a different stance.
“If they’re willing to spend money and listen to the study group about giving raises, then they should be spending more money on education, on things for kids like hospital care treatment,” said Carmen Rodriguez, who showed up at a listening session this month to take notes for the Hispanic community.
“A lot of Hispanic parents work a lot of hours,” her 15-year-old son Uriel added. “[They should look at] after-school care for kids, just to help parents that work overtime.”
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect the accurate number of residents—5,000, or 10 percent voters who turned out in the previous municipal election—who would have to petition for a referendum on election changes.
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