Low turnout in Charlotte mayoral race boosts voters’ clout

Charlotte Mayor Democratic candidates Dan Clodfelter (left) and Jennifer Roberts.
Charlotte Mayor Democratic candidates Dan Clodfelter (left) and Jennifer Roberts. Charlotte

Melissa Chambers could be one of the most powerful voters in Charlotte.

The Democrat, 38, who works in higher education, voted last week in the city’s Democratic mayoral runoff.

“I vote in every election,” she said outside an early voting site. “That’s an important thing to do.”

Chambers will have an outsized voice in choosing the person who could be Charlotte’s next mayor.

Election officials say as few as 12,000 voters could cast ballots in Tuesday’s runoff between Democrats Dan Clodfelter and Jennifer Roberts. The winner will go on to face Republican Edwin Peacock.

That would be 3 percent of the 385,519 Democrats and unaffiliated voters eligible to vote. If that many show up, it would be more than voted in three of Mecklenburg County’s last four election runoffs.

Two years ago, 1.7 percent of voters turned out for runoffs in two Charlotte City Council districts. In 2008, just over half of one percent came out for a runoff between two Democratic candidates for state Labor Commissioner.

The high water mark: a 2012 runoff for a handful of state and local races, including a face-off in the 9th District congressional primary. That saw 5.2 percent of county voters cast ballots.

North Carolina is one of only 11 states that require some form of runoffs. But whether a state has them or not, they’re required in many cities around the country, according to Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia and an expert on runoffs.

As in North Carolina, that doesn’t guarantee a big turnout.

“Where you have partisan elections, a lot of voters may look at the primary and the runoff as the prelims and pass on that, and wait for the main event – the general election,” Bullock says.

Calling your friends and neighbors will win this election. That’s how low the turnout is.

Clodfelter strategist Dan McCorkle

Candidates are bracing for a low turnout.

“Calling your friends and neighbors will win this election,” says Clodfelter strategist Dan McCorkle. “That’s how low the turnout is.”

Both campaigns are targeting the voters they think are the most likely to vote.

“We’re trying to talk to everybody we think will vote in the Democratic primary or who has a decent likelihood of voting,” says Jacob Becklund, Roberts’ campaign manager. “We’re trying to turn them all out because the higher the turnout, the better Jennifer’s going to do.”

McCorkle says Clodfelter’s campaign is targeting “Doomsday” Democrats – a Democrat loyal enough to vote on Doomsday – with special efforts in areas in which their candidate has done well.

Through Thursday, 3,123 voters had cast a runoff ballot. That included about 600 unaffiliated voters. About 1,900 women and 1,150 men cast ballots, according to Mecklenburg County data.

While African-Americans made up more than half of the early voters – about 1,600 – that’s less than their registration numbers might suggest. Black voters make up about two out of every three Democratic voters.

Former City Council member Ron Leeper and former school board member Sarah Stevenson, both prominent African-Americans, sent out emails for Roberts. The N.C. Homeowners Alliance, a subsidiary of the N.C. Association of Realtors, sponsored mailers as well as radio and Internet ads for Clodfelter.

Roberts canceled campaign events after her father, Randy Watson, died early Saturday. Clodfelter said on his campaign’s Facebook page that he would follow suit.

“Elizabeth and I were saddened to hear that Jennifer Roberts lost her father this morning after a long illness​,” he said in a statement. “Out of respect to Jennifer, The Dan Clodfelter for Mayor Campaign will suspend all field and voter communication campaigning tomorrow.​”​

Mecklenburg County Elections Director Michael Dickerson says voters who do show up won’t have to invest a lot of time.

“It’s a quick process, you’re pretty much in and out,” he says. “When you’re only pressing one button, it doesn’t take you that long.”

Database editor Gavin Off contributed.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

Tuesday is Election Day

Who can vote: Democrats, whether they voted on Sept. 15 or not, can vote. So can unaffiliated voters – unless they voted in the Republican primary. Libertarians and Republicans can’t vote.

Voting day: Charlotte polls open at 6:30 a.m and close at 7:30 p.m.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer