Shaheed Minder would rather vote for the people who run Charlotte than the politicians who represent him in Raleigh or Washington, D.C.
Why? Because he can get in local leaders' faces and hold them accountable for promises they made on the campaign trail. That's why Minder plans to be at the polls on Nov. 8, when Charlotte voters will decide whether Anthony Foxx will continue as mayor or relinquish the office to his Republican challenger Scott Stone. Other races include the factious District 3 election, which will produce a historic result either way: the district's first Republican city council representative or the city's first openly gay council member.
Minder, 37, a father of four, gets excited about city and county elections because, he said, the political effects of what goes on in local government are felt immediately.
"I can go up to Anthony Foxx's office and I can make it so that it is hard for them to ignore what my concerns are," said Minder, who owns a software-development business. "If they ignore the needs of real citizens and put the interests of lobbyists and big business over the concerns of the people, then it's easier for me to make some noise on the local level than on the state level."
It appears Minder is in the minority. Look at the September local primary — only 2 percent of voters turned up at the polls — and it's clear that most people are more bedazzled by the bells and whistles of national politics.
"These are down-ballot, off-year elections," said Josh Putnam, visiting assistant professor of political science at Davidson College. "It's understood that the turnout is going to be low."
Putnam said it's up to a particular municipality to decide whether or not to hold an election during the hoopla surrounding a presidential race. "Some opt to lump that in on a presidential primary year and others opt to avoid that," he said. "That certainly has implications for turnout in the primaries and also for the general elections. It's typically much lower without the presidential election."
The presidential election of 2008 fired up a whopping 66 percent of local voters, who lined up at the polls, as Americans did everywhere, in no small part due to the historic nature of the race. Since President Obama has been in office, though, voter participation in the Charlotte area has fizzled. The citywide mayoral election of 2009 attracted only 21 percent of voters, and this year, with the upcoming 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte hogging so much news space, voters seem more confused or apathetic than ever about local races.
"If this was next year, everyone would know that it's election day," said Jessica Wood, campaign manger for Republican mayoral candidate Stone. "We've really had to contact voters and let them know that the election is this year and not next year."
Not even controversy brought out many voters for the September primary. One of the most contested races was District 3, which pitted Democratic incumbent Warren Turner, who had faced allegations of sexual misconduct, against political newcomer LaWana Mayfield and business owner Svend Deal. Fewer than 1,800 people voted and Mayfield won, unseating Turner. She now faces Republican Ed Toney.
Mecklenburg County Board of Elections head Michael Dickerson said he believes more people will vote on Nov. 8 because, unlike the primary race, this election involves races that Republicans and Democrats alike care about. In the primary election, mostly Democrats faced opposition and only one Republican, Warren Cooksey, had an opponent. Historically, primary participation has been around 5 percent, Dickerson said, adding that participation in general elections ranges from 20 to 25 percent.
The big question this week is: Will Charlotte voters turn out on Nov. 8? There's certainly plenty at stake. For starters:
• The re-election of Charlotte's first Democratic mayor since Harvey Gantt in 1983, or the election of a new mayor without any prior political experience.
• A new District 3 representative to replace Turner, whose accomplishments over eight years included major transit improvements and the clean-up of Wilkinson Boulevard.
• A new representative for District 5, which includes East Charlotte, an area that's seen economic decline, the closure of Eastland Mall and a heavy influx of Latino, African and Korean immigrants.
• Four at-large city council seats.
Not every voter knows or cares much about these races, though. Toria Boldware, president of the Mecklenburg County Young Democrats, said it's been an uphill battle this year for her to capture the interest of people between 18 and 35. Some of them, she said, removed themselves from the electoral process after the 2008 election of Obama because they thought "they had done their job."
"People are saying, 'We're voting for mayor again? I didn't know there was an election,'" said Boldware.