Elections

Need a reminder why you should vote? Ask loser of coin flip.

Voters line up at an early voting site in Charlotte a few years ago.
Voters line up at an early voting site in Charlotte a few years ago. Staff Photographer

It was a flip of the coin that cost Sparta town council member Agnes Joines her seat.

In the Sampson County town of Garland, it was a purple pen that broke a tie and sent Judy Smith to victory.

And in Cornelius, it was a name plucked from a hat that decided the election that would send Thom Tillis on his way to Raleigh and eventually, Washington.

Those are among dozens of local elections decided, if not by the luck of the draw, by a relatively few votes in North Carolina.

They underscore the importance of every vote in what are expected to be low turnout elections next month in Charlotte and other municipalities in Mecklenburg County and around the state. Mecklenburg voters also will decide on school board members and a $922 million bond issue.

In Mecklenburg, early voting continues Saturday with the opening of 16 additional sites around the county. They’re open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Even with early voting, turnout in the general election is expected to be modest. Mecklenburg elections director Michael Dickerson predicts 17 percent of the county’s 705,000 voters.

Even at 17 percent, turnout would be about double that for the city primary, where less than 8 percent of voters went to the polls. The lower the turnout the more important each vote.

Republican John Powell knows that.

He’s running again for an at-large seat on the Charlotte City Council. In 2015, he lost by 248 votes. That’s a little more than one vote per precinct.

“Let’s say I went to vote and my wife didn’t vote,” Powell says. “That’s that one or two votes per precinct. It’s an incredibly small number that makes a difference.”

In the 9th Congressional District last year, Mark Harris lost to incumbent Robert Pittenger by just 134 votes in a Republican primary that spans eight counties.

Democracy North Carolina, a Durham-based advocacy group, this month issued a report on close races in the 2015 local elections.

Researchers found 69 municipalities where the mayor or a council member won by five or fewer votes. In 31 cities, one voter made the difference in who won or lost.

In the Allegheny County town of Sparta, 100 miles north of Charlotte, Agnes Joines and Milly Richardson each got 61 votes. A coin flip cost Joines a 4-year term.

In Garland, about 40 miles east of Fayetteville, Judy Smith and her council opponent tied. The elections director broke the tie by pulling a purple pen – the color she chose – out of a box.

“It was literally the luck of the draw,” says Smith.

In elections with 5,000 voters or fewer, ties are generally settled randomly, unless the candidates agree on a resolution. In bigger elections, a tie would trigger a runoff.

Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, says turnout is particularly important in local elections.

“The reasons to vote are two-fold,” he says. “A very small number of votes can turn a local election and local officials have a big impact on your life. The second reason is the winner can use it as a platform to build a political career.”

That’s what happened in a 2003 election in the town of Cornelius.

Incumbent town commissioner Jim Bensman found himself tied with newcomer Thom Tillis. Both won seats, but because of a switch to staggered terms, only one would get a 4-year term while the other would serve for just two years.

The town’s oldest voter pulled Bensman’s name from a hat, giving him the 4-year term.

The 2-year term freed Tillis to run for the state House in 2006. He once said if he’d gotten the longer term, he “would have been more inclined to fill out my obligation.”

Tillis was elected in 2006 and became speaker of the House in 2010. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

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