Don't write off Tuesday's primary. It will determine winners for these NC races.

Don't write off Tuesday's primary. It will determine winners for these NC races.
Mecklenburg voters face primaries on Tuesday (Credit: Diedra Laird | Observer file photo)
District Attorney Spencer Merriweather District attorney’s office
District Attorney Spencer Merriweather District attorney’s office
Queen Thompson
Queen Thompson
District Attorney candidate Toussaint Romain speaks during the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg 2018 Candidate Primary Forum (Credit: Jeff Siner | The Charlotte Observer)
District Attorney candidate Toussaint Romain speaks during the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg 2018 Candidate Primary Forum (Credit: Jeff Siner | The Charlotte Observer)
Democrat Mark Jerrell
Democrat Mark Jerrell
Leigh Altman, candidate for Mecklenburg County commissioner.
Leigh Altman, candidate for Mecklenburg County commissioner.

CHARLOTTE, NC (Jim Morrill/The Charlotte Observer) - Wherever Democrat Mark Jerrell campaigns, he explains what he would do as a Mecklenburg County commissioner, then tells voters something else: Tuesday's primary is crucial.

"This is for all the marbles," says Jerrell, running in District 4. "This is winner take all."

Primaries are often a sleepy prelude to November general elections. But for many voters, the 2018 primaries are no warm-up act.

Some will effectively determine who will hold office and vote on policies, tax rates and budgets for up to four years.

On Tuesday Mecklenburg voters will decide their next sheriff, district attorney and three of their next district commissioners. All are in Democratic primaries where no Republicans or Libertarians are running.

There are other primaries where voters will all but put somebody in office. Those are races with token opposition, whether Republican or Democrat, in county or General Assembly districts dominated by the other party.

"Despite redistricting, we still have lots and lots of legislative districts that lean very heavily toward one party or the other," says Jonathan Kappler, who tracks campaigns for the North Carolina Free enterprise Foundation. "So the outcomes of contested primaries are very consequential."

Adding to the importance of Tuesday's vote is a new law that should mean fewer runoffs. Candidates now need 30 percent of the vote — not 40 percent — to win outright. That means more races will be decided Tuesday.

To be sure, there will be competitive November races across the state. In Mecklenburg alone, at least three Democratic candidates reported having more campaign money in late April than the Republican incumbents they'll face.

But for nearly two dozen state lawmakers, including at least three incumbents, the strong competition is now.

Democratic Sen. Joel Ford and Republican Sen. Dan Bishop have both been outraised by their respective challengers: Democrat Mujtaba Mohammed and Republican Beth Monaghan.

And three Democrats, including one endorsed by the influential Black Political Caucus, are challenging Democratic Rep. Rodney Moore, whom state officials are investigating for possible campaign finance violations. Priscilla Johnson, Nasif Majeed and Jackson Pethtal are trying to unseat him.

Every vote counts

Despite the importance of many primaries, analysts don't expect a lot of voters.

This is a "blue moon" election, the first election since 2006 with no statewide race to help draw people to the polls. Not only that but it's the first since 1958 with no statewide election or referendum in the ballot, according to former legislative official Gerry Cohen.

In 2006 statewide primary turnout was less than 12 percent. It's never exceeded 21 percent in the last three decades of off-year elections. Recent local elections have drawn even fewer voters.

In Charlotte, last September's mayoral primaries saw a turnout of 8 percent. Democrat Vi Lyles, who would go on to be elected, won her primary with 46 percent of the vote. But that was less than 3 percent of the city's registered voters.

In low-turnout elections, every vote carries more weight.

Local races in North Carolina have been decided by a flip of the coin or random drawing to break a tie. In Cornelius, it was a name plucked from a hat that decided a 2003 election that would eventually send now-U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis on his way first to Raleigh and then to Washington.

Democracy North Carolina, a Durham-based advocacy group, found 69 municipalities where the mayor or a council member won by five or fewer votes in 2015. In 31 cities that year, one voter made the difference in who won or lost.

'The whole ball game'

As he campaigns, District Attorney Spencer Merriweather reminds people that his primary against fellow Democrat Tousaint Romain is the entire election.

"I explain there are two of us in the race, both are Democrats and there's not a Republican (in November)," he says. "Usually folks are little bit surprised to hear that."

It's the general elections that could be competitive in two Mecklenburg House districts and one Senate district.

Democrats Christy Clark in House District 98 and Rachel Hunt in District 103 both reported more cash on hand last quarter than their Republican opponents, Reps. John Bradford and Bill Brawley. And in Senate District 41, Democrat Natasha Marcus has nearly $50,000 more on hand than Republican Sen. Jeff Tarte. Each race is expected to be hard fought as Democrats fight to break GOP super-majorities in the General Assembly.

But that's in November. Tuesday will decide the race for Democrat Leigh Altman, who's running against Jerrell and Queen Thompson for county commissioner in District 4. The winner will replace Democrat Dumont Clarke, who has held the seat for nearly two decades.

"We're working hard to make sure people understand that Tuesday is the whole ball game," Altman says.

"I let them know that if they wait until November to get engaged, they will have missed an opportunity to weigh in to make sure their voice is heard."