Municipal Election Delays

Scott Mooneyham, NCLM Director of Political Communication & Coordination

A Satisfactory Conclusion to a Complex Problem.

It was not a problem of cities’ making, but it is one that they must address later this year and next year. It also was not one that they could fix on their own. They needed the General Assembly’s help.

State lawmakers delivered that help in late June, passing legislation that will allow some municipalities that elect council members by districts to delay elections scheduled for 2021 and instead hold them in 2022.

The change was needed because of delays in U.S. Census data would not have allowed enough time for cities to complete their redistricting process and establish new districts by the time of the scheduled 2021 elections. By allowing elections to be delayed for 35 cities and towns—along with some other local governments—those municipalities are able to avoid potentially unconstitutional elections that fail to take into account voter changes within districts.

While the issue seemed rather clear-cut, elections and passing laws to change them are never without controversy.

As the year began, the issue was barely on the legislative radar, even as NCLM staff began working with elections experts to begin working through the ramifications of the data delay on elections.

At an Advancing Advocacy session in February, League staff brought in Caroline Mackie, an attorney with the Poyner Spruill law firm, and Blake Esselstyn, an elections demographer, to speak to members about the complications created by the census data delay and how it might be addressed.

Mackie indicated then, and in subsequent news interviews, that she saw “some value in the legislature uniformly making this change, at least for municipalities with electoral districts.” State elections officials, though, initially indicated that they might favor moving all municipal elections to 2022.

NCLM and its member cities and towns without district elections saw that proposal as potentially creating unneeded dissension and confusion. Monroe officials were the first to write a letter in opposition. Scott Mooneyham, NCLM Director of Political Communication and Coordination, responded to reporters’ inquiries by stating that voters’ interests ought to be put first. “It seems highly unlikely that a one-size-fits-all solution is the best way to accomplish that,” he said.

Ultimately, the General Assembly—led by state senators Warren Daniel, Paul Newton, and Ralph Hise—worked with municipal officials in crafting legislation designed to create as little disruption as possible, only allowing for election delays where they were needed.

The bill was initially approved unanimously in the Senate and the House, but a handful of changes made at the behest of a handful of local government entities created some opposition from voting rights groups, which led to less support once the bill made its way back to the Senate for final approval and caused Governor Roy Cooper to allow the bill to become law without his signature.

The shift will mean that the affected cities and towns can complete their new district maps, incorporating new census data, toward the end of the year. The election cycle will then begin—depending on their elections structure—in March, April, or May.

And for another decade and until the next U.S. Census, the muddle of delayed municipal elections can hopefully be put behind North Carolina cities and towns.