Pandemic may force major delays in municipal elections, Siler City board advised

Posted 2/17/21

SILER CITY — November’s election season was historic and unusual as COVID-19 restrictions forced nationwide protocol adjustments.

But 2021’s election season may be similarly …

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Pandemic may force major delays in municipal elections, Siler City board advised

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SILER CITY — November’s election season was historic and unusual as COVID-19 restrictions forced nationwide protocol adjustments.

But 2021’s election season may be similarly upended by pandemic circumstances, at least in Siler City.

The town has two challenges to its election season: census data will arrive several months later than usual following pandemic delays, and the commissioners must nonetheless redistrict Siler City before municipal elections can begin.

At the board of commissioners meeting on Monday, two representatives from Tharrington Smith — a law firm that advised the town of Siler City 10 years ago during its previous redistricting — outlined the peculiarities of this year’s election timeline and some options for how the town could adapt.

“Redistricting is, as most folks are aware, the process of redrawing districts so that each district has roughly the same number of people,” said Blake Esselstyn, a demographer working with Tharrington Smith in the town’s employ. “And in order to do that you need to have accurate numbers about the number of people in each census block.”

Districts need not change if the population has been largely inert over the previous decade, but “the city may need to redistrict if you have a change in your population that puts your districts out of balance for purposes of one person, one vote,” said Tharrington Smith attorney Deborah Stagner, referring to the principle that every person should have equal representation in voting.

Normally, census figures would have been delivered Feb. 18. That would permit town officials several months to redistrict and submit its modified districts to the county board of elections in preparation for end-of-year elections.

“Typically, what this scenario would look like,” Esselstyn said, “is the data would be delivered in February and March and candidate filing would start in July.”

Last week, though, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that population data will not reach towns until the end of September.

“So, that’s beyond — that’s well after when the actual filing period would typically happen for odd-year municipal elections,” Esselstyn said.

What does that mean for Siler City and other towns with scheduled elections this fall?

“At this point, it is possible that the General Assembly will enact laws that will change or delay the filing and the elections for all municipalities across the state,” Stagner said.

A variant of that possibility is that N.C. legislators may postpone elections “just for municipalities with odd-year elections that also have election districts,” Esselstyn said, such as Siler City. “... There are many cities and towns that have odd-year elections but don’t have this redistricting requirement, so they wouldn’t be in the same boat.”

If the General Assembly does not take action, however, the town is still permitted under statute to delay its elections pending certain requirements: a public hearing followed by a vote to adopt a resolution rescheduling elections for March 2022.

“But even with a March date for the election next year that still puts us in a bit of a time crunch,” Stagner said, “given the census data not showing up until this fall.”

If elections move to March, the board would have about five weeks to conduct its redistricting process, affording the BOE one month to “figure out the significance of these districts,” Esselstyn said.

That’s about half the time it usually takes for towns to effectively reshuffle their districts.

“It’s possible to potentially get redistricting done in a shorter period of time,” Stagner said, “but one of the things that we will be talking to you about as we enter into the process is whether and how much public input to have, whether you want to have a public hearing and that sort of thing.”

To permit the board of commissioners maximal time for due diligence in fulfilling its obligation to redistrict, the election could move deeper into 2022, with filing to begin sometime in February and the primary extended to May. But the General Assembly would have to make that decision, Esselstyn and Stagner indicated.

Some commissioners expressed apprehension at delaying the election season, but Stagner reminded the board that state law requires fair representation of every voter.

“You are obligated to respect in your districts one person, one vote,” she said, “and if elections were held with districts that were so far out of balance that they didn’t meet that, you would potentially be (in trouble) for not having constitutionally compliant districts.”

The board did not make any decisions with respect to election timing in its Monday meeting. If the General Assembly does not pass legislation to address the unique pandemic circumstances, commissioners will have to examine its options more closely in coming months.

“If it does turn out that a resolution is needed from the city to postpone elections,” Stagner said “... we’ll certainly be here to help and work with you through that process.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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