A poll worker pulls out a "I voted" sticker at the First Baptist Church of Black Mountain polling place in Buncombe County on March 3, 2020. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press
A poll worker pulls out a "I voted" sticker at the First Baptist Church of Black Mountain polling place in Buncombe County on March 3, 2020. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

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Data from the U.S. census will not be available in time for many municipalities in North Carolina, including the state’s largest cities, to run their elections in the fall. 

As it stands, candidate filing for municipal elections is scheduled for July, but the U.S. Census Bureau announced Feb. 12 that the data cities and towns need to draw their districts will not be ready until the end of September, about six months later than usual. Then, it takes another two months to process that data, according to Karen Brinson Bell, the director of the N.C. State Board of Elections. 

There seems to be consensus among legislators, city attorneys and experts that at least 62 municipalities across 33 counties will have to delay their 2021 elections, which are currently scheduled across September, October and November. 

But the stakeholders do not yet agree on a solution, and the biggest debate is whether to delay elections across all 552 municipalities in the state or to simply target changes to those local governments that rely on districts or wards for candidate filing or electing candidates. 

“The key question for everybody in this, whether it’s people at the state level or at the local level, is what solutions offer the least disruption and confusion for voters,” said Scott Mooneyham, the director of political communication and coordination for the N.C. League of Municipalities, which represents cities and towns around the state. 

On Feb. 23, Brinson Bell made a suggestion to the General Assembly that would delay all municipal elections until 2022, to be timed with the statewide election for U.S. Senate and for numerous countywide races, which would also be delayed from March to May. But the idea faces opposition from Mooneyham and local leaders whose municipalities do not use districts in their elections. 

“It seems highly unlikely that a one-size-fits-all solution is the best way to accomplish that,” Mooneyham said. 

But directly and indirectly, many of the state’s smaller towns will be drawn into the delay, either because they vote by districts, share a county with a large city that votes by district, or the General Assembly decides to delay all municipal elections uniformly. 

Who will be affected

The state’s largest cities, including Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Fayetteville and Raleigh, will have to reschedule their municipal elections, and that action will have to be taken by the General Assembly, per state law

In normal circumstances, city or town councils could decide to delay their own elections, but they are only permitted to do that if they have already had the opportunity to review census data, according to the State Board of Elections. Since that will not be possible, the legislature will have to intercede. 

Counter to Brinson Bell’s request that all municipal elections be delayed until 2022 and be lined up with the county- and state-level primary, second primary and general elections, city officials out of Monroe in Union County wrote to their House legislator, Rep. David Willis, R-Union, to say the city would be better served without delaying its elections. 

The delay would create a ripple effect by having current elected officials serve for an additional year while the officials elected in 2022 would have a year cut off their terms. Taken together, the actions could disrupt the city’s regular pattern of having staggered elections, instead putting them in a position to elect an entirely new city council and mayor in the same year. 

Due to these complications, the city officials asked “that any delay imposed on municipal elections not apply to municipalities like Monroe that have no district representation,” according to the letter. 

In other counties, such as Cumberland, large cities like Fayetteville run districted elections while the smaller towns do not. When municipalities hold elections on the same dates, they all share the costs. So, if an especially large city has to delay its elections, it may be more cost-effective for all the municipalities in the county to also delay their elections. 

But Union County, along with 66 other counties, doesn’t have any municipality that holds a districted election, meaning that neither Monroe nor its neighboring cities or towns would need to delay their elections for redistricting purposes. 

In their letter, Monroe officials say that delaying the election would cause confusion for voters. Brinson Bell, on the other hand, told the legislature that having some municipalities in the state delay elections while others proceed normally would create its own kind of confusion. 

The General Assembly will have to act without the luxury of a definitively correct answer for what is best for voters, likely balancing what may be best for some voters but worse for others. 

A constitutional question

North Carolina’s cities are in a tough position, according to Caroline Mackie, partner at the Poyner Spruill law firm with an expertise in constitutional questions around voting and redistricting. 

If any municipalities go forward with running their elections before redistricting, they will likely open themselves up to litigation about the one-person, one-vote rule, Mackie said. Basically, if population levels have changed but the election maps are not updated, certain districts in a city could end up getting more representation for fewer voters. That raises federal equal protection claims as well as state constitutional problems, Mackie said, and federal courts are even stricter on the issue. 

“I think there’s probably some value in the legislature uniformly making this change, at least for municipalities with electoral districts,” Mackie said. 

If the state legislature does not act, the different solutions that affected municipalities may enact could also raise their own constitutional questions, according to staff from the State Board of Elections. 

Some municipalities that do not currently run their elections on districts but have seen significant population change may also want to move to districting after reviewing census data, State Board of Elections staff also told Carolina Public Press by email. 

“This would be entirely up to the municipality and the General Assembly,” wrote Pat Gannon, state board spokesperson. 

“The state board does not play a role in that decision. The town would have to determine whether there is a litigation risk in not districting based on what the data show.” 

Patrick Baker, city attorney for Charlotte, told City Council members that he is not sure that they have the legal authority to delay the city’s elections for a full year, or even to bifurcate the elections and only delay those that are run on districts, rather than the ones that are citywide. 

Baker recommended that the city not take any action until the General Assembly does. 

For their part, legislative leaders from both parties have told Carolina Public Press that it is too early to know what action they will take.

On top of considering municipal elections, state leaders will also have to weigh delaying the countywide and statewide primaries in 2022, as Brinson Bell recommended. 

“That’s a very tight timeline, from the end of September through the beginning of December, to receive census data, go through the process, which can be lengthy, and then give the boards of election enough time to process that data [and] implement the districts before the election,” Mackie said. 

This idea created some partisan uproar on Twitter, though members of the House Election Law and Campaign Finance Reform Committee, which heard from Brinson Bell on Feb. 24, left the issue largely unaddressed. 

Under Brinson Bell’s recommendations, candidate filing would be delayed until February 2022, the primary until May, the second primary until July, and the general election would run as normal in November.

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Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a former Report for America corps member and former reporter at Carolina Public Press. To reach the newsroom, email us at news@carolinapublicpress.org.