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Chapel Hill sees high voter turnout in 2023 municipal election

Municipal election signs line Franklin Street on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023.

This year, over 2,000 more votes were cast in the municipal elections for Chapel Hill mayor, town council and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education than in 2021.

Chapel Hill elected Jess Anderson as its mayor with nearly 59 percent of the vote. According to a poll done by Public Policy Polling, Anderson and fellow mayoral candidate Adam Searing were predicted to be within a percent of each other.

Over 12,000 votes were cast in the Chapel Hill mayoral election, marking a nearly 20 percent increase from the 2021 municipal election.

Theodore Nollert, Amy Ryan and Melissa McCullough won three of the four open seats on the town council. The fourth spot is currently held by Elizabeth Sharp, but Renuka Soll is 16 votes behind — within the margin for a recount. Sharp and Soll both earned 10.7 percent of the vote. The final election numbers, including provisional ballots and late mail-in votes, will be counted over the next week. 

Sharp compared the slim margin in this race to the 2019 town council race, where Tai Huynh won a seat by 24 votes. 

“It does seem like municipal elections, at least in Chapel Hill, the margins are really, really slim,” Sharp said.

Meredith Ballew, Rani Dasi, Barbara Fedders and Vickie Feaster Fornville won the four open seats on the school board.

Anderson, the mayor-elect, said this election’s turnout may have been impacted by there being two well-defined sides of the race.

She said some of the more contentious issues of this race include the Housing Choice text amendment and the conversion of a portion of the American Legion property for affordable housing.

“The nature of the mayor and council races this year was a little more contentious than previous years that I've been involved in,” Anderson said. “This was definitely the most challenging and difficult race that I've run.”

She said there was a big push from both sides to get people to the polls and more media coverage of the election. 

“We're at a crossroads of trying to figure out how the town is going to move forward into the future and there were some pretty clear choices presented especially between the two mayoral candidates,” Amy Ryan, the reelected town council member, said. “I think with the council candidates, too.” 

Gerry Cohen, a former Chapel Hill Town Council member and current member of the Wake County Board of Elections, said, though municipal elections have some of the lowest turnout rates of any election, this year's races may have seen some of the highest participation in a decade.

The election saw a turnout of about 26 percent of eligible votes cast in Orange County, compared to just 10.6 percent statewide and 23 percent in Orange County in the 2021 municipal elections.

Cohen said engagement is up compared to the 2021 municipal election in UNC's precinct, which includes residence halls.

“There were like 270 votes in that precinct on Election Day in 2021 — this year was like 470,” Cohen said.

He said that, of the 170 same-day registrations in Orange County, 59 of them lived in residence halls in the UNC precinct. Cohen also said a common phenomenon among young voters is voting very late in the election season.

Theodore Nollert, a graduate student who was elected to the town council, said it is still a consistent challenge to incentivize young people to vote.

Nollert said that in municipal elections, older demographics are more reliable voters, though Chapel Hill has a high number of young people registered to vote.

“That's the most important takeaway about turnout — if we can build a model for that on this campus and show people how it's done, we have a model that we can spread across the state,” Nollert said.

@DTHCityState |

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