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Candidates encourage municipal voter turnout, which continues to lag behind general elections


Municipal election years in North Carolina see a significantly smaller turnout rate than primary or general elections. In 2019 and 2021, only 16 percent of registered voters participated in November municipal elections, compared to 75 percent in 2020 and 51 percent in 2022.

In Orange County, slightly higher rates of eligible voters cast a ballot during recent elections compared to the statewide average — with 23 percent of eligible voters participating. In 2019 and 2017, about 18 percent voted. 

Municipal elections across the state will take place on Nov. 7. These elections will determine mayor, town council and school board seats.

Rick Morse, a professor of public administration and government at UNC, co-authored The Citizens Academy Handbook, which provides local governments with information on how to structure civic education classes that the public can attend to learn about how a town or county operates.

He said, while voting is an influential way to be involved, there are other channels of local government that also need to be emphasized.

“If people are paying attention and understand what's happening in local government, there's a myriad of ways that they can get involved,” he said.

The Town of Chapel Hill offers a citizens academy class, called the Peoples Academy, every February and March. The class teaches participants about Town services and provides the opportunity to connect with Town leadership and discuss community issues.

Morse said in the last decade, local governments have been more proactive in engaging citizens beyond what is required by law. He said he thinks citizens academies create goodwill and knowledgeable residents who can serve as ambassadors to their neighborhoods when issues arise.

“I would argue that in terms of people's day-to-day lives, local government impacts them way more than state or federal or anything else,” Morse said.

Students are among the block of people that Morse said the Peoples Academy was created for.

Theodore Nollert is a current UNC doctoral candidate running for Chapel Hill Town Council. Before declaring his candidacy, Nollert was the president of the Graduate and Professional Student Government and he currently serves on the Town’s planning commission.

He said engaging students has been a large part of his campaign.

“There are enough students who could register to vote here and vote that they could basically determine the outcome of every election,” he said. “Young folks just don't register and vote in those numbers.”

Nollert said his engagement strategy consists of being present on campus at student events and going door to door to talk with voters.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school board candidate Rani Dasi has also implemented face-to-face engagement as a main strategy in her campaign.

Dasi said word of mouth and pre-established connections from her involvement in the community are useful to get the word out and campaign as a school board veteran running for reelection. 

She has occupied both vice chair and chair positions on the school board during her eight-year tenure. 

“I think it's important that when you are interested in an office like this, that you're doing the work before the campaign starts,” Dasi said.

Dasi and Barbara Fedders, an associate professor of law at UNC and another candidate for the school board, have both been endorsed by Indy Week and Equality NC. Fedders said these endorsements will make a big difference for her campaign, especially in a race with 12 other candidates.

“I think that is going to help a lot of people who don't have time to go to candidate forums and to make up their minds,” she said. 

Nollert said that in local elections, one vote counts the most — because of how close the margins can be.

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Chapel Hill Town Council member Tai Huynh — who was a UNC student when he was elected — won his seat by just 24 votes in 2019.

“If 15 percent of registered voters are voting in the election, that does not take a lot to change the election,” Morse said. “So I think there's a lot of untapped potential in that sense.”


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