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Purple pens and coin tosses: NC politicians can win elections by slim margins, according to new study

In cities across North Carolina, one vote can decide an entire election, according to a new study published by Democracy North Carolina.

Democracy NC analyzed elections in November 2015 and found 31 cities where a mayor or councilmember was elected by the margin of one vote, or a tiebreaker. The researchers also determined that 69 cities had races decided by five or fewer votes. 

According to the study, tiebreakers were typically broken by the flip of a coin — though some cities became creative in their method. In Garland, for example, a tied vote resulted in a city council candidate winning by pulling a purple pen from a box.

“It does, in fact, turn out that one person can make the difference whether someone wins or loses,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy NC. “That candidate winning can be a stepping stone for a higher office in the state legislature, or even U.S. senator.”

He said U.S. Sen Thom Tillis, R-N.C., tied with another candidate in a Cornelius town commissioner election. Tillis won a two-year term in the tiebreaker, opening an opportunity for him to run for the state legislature.

Hall said the ramifications of local elections extend far beyond the politician — affecting voters' daily lives.

“These are folks you may see in the shopping center," he said. "But they also have influence over your tax rates, your roads, your water service, your garbage collection, your schools."

For UNC-Chapel Hill students specifically, Hall said local and state elections can determine grant funding, as well as funding for campus buildings, academic research and campus athletics.

Savannah Mercure, a UNC-CH sophomore, said she voted in her hometown of Lumberton to have a voice in government and to choose capable leaders for her community, specifically. 

“In Lumberton, many people are concerned with affordable housing and trying to get the economy back on track after the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Matthew,” she said.

In 2015, city council candidate Leon Maynor won his seat in Lumberton by a one-vote margin over his opponent.

Thomas Birkland, an N.C. State University political science professor, said elections determined by a few votes are typically the result of low turnout in odd-year elections.

“It tends to go down in descending order, so biggest turnout years are presidential elections, the next are Senate and governor races, and on down the line,” he said.

Birkland said the reason for low turnout was due to local elections not garnering media attention and also because local media — as an enterprise — has struggled lately. Even when local media has a substantial audience, Birkland said its broad regional focus results in little information on the candidates running in smaller cities.

“Our message is to vote early and vote often in your life,” Hall said. “Always make it a habit, because it’s an integral part of being a citizen.”

@ryan_smooth

state@dailytarheel.com

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