Senate Bill could alleviate municipal redistricting troubles, postpone 2021 elections

Posted 6/9/21

SILER CITY — Municipalities statewide may soon find relief from their redistricting woes through a Senate Bill that would postpone the 2021 election season by several months.

SB722 has already …

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Senate Bill could alleviate municipal redistricting troubles, postpone 2021 elections

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Posted

SILER CITY — Municipalities statewide may soon find relief from their redistricting woes through a Senate Bill that would postpone the 2021 election season by several months.

SB722 has already made its way across the Senate floor and into the House of Representatives where it’s expected to progress with bipartisan support, according to election experts.

“Everything I have heard — and it’s always dangerous and difficult to predict what the General Assembly will do — but what we have heard is this bill is likely to pass,” said Deborah Stagner, an attorney with Tharrington Smith, the law firm advising Siler City through the redistricting process.

“And so there is likely to be some relief for towns and cities like Siler City that use districts,” she told the board of commissioners on Monday.

Every 10 years, municipalities, cities and states must assess their respective voting districts and amend them to uphold the “one person, one vote” principle — that every resident is entitled to fair and equal representation by districts of roughly equal population. Districts need not change if the population has been largely inert over the previous decade, but that scenario is unlikely for Chatham municipalities, which have evolved considerably in recent years.

There are 62 municipalities statewide with 2021 elections scheduled that organize by districts or wards. Of those, 35 — including Siler City and Cary (which has more than 3,000 Chatham voters) — elect town representatives from within each district. The other 27 “use districts or wards but don’t elect people by them,” N.C. State Board of Elections Communication Specialist Noah Grant previously told the News + Record. “They use them for filing purposes.”

To inform the redistricting process, towns rely on census data. Following pandemic setbacks, however, the federal government has been delayed in delivering results of last year’s census, prohibiting local and municipal governments from redistricting and potentially compromising this year’s election season.

If enacted, SB722 will delay elections until March 2022 — five months later than usual — to accommodate tardy census data, which Siler City will likely receive by late summer. Commissioners whose seats would normally be up for election in November will have their terms extended accordingly.

“We are expecting to get the first census data in August and we hope that will stick,” Stagner said. “... The final data will come out in September.”

Cities and municipalities would have until either Nov. 17 or Dec. 17 to revise their districts if necessary, she added. Elected officials, such as Siler City’s board of commissioners, will have until Nov. 12 to decide which deadline they can meet.

“I’m not sure what the reasoning is behind having those two dates,” Stagner said, “... It would be a very tight timeline to be finished by Nov. 17, so I think if this bill passes in its current form it would be Dec. 17 as the date we’re looking at to finish redistricting.”

Before adoption of new districts, state law requires towns host a public hearing to accept resident input on the proposed districts. If SB722 passes in its current iteration, the filing period will begin on Jan. 3 and the election on March 8.

“If it does not become law,” Stagner said, “then what we have is the current law, and in that case I think the town is really limited to a couple of options, neither of which is very good.”

The first would be to pursue local legislation permitting an election delay.

“Although I’m not sure how likely that would be to be satisfactory or effective,” Stagner said.

A second option would be to host the election as scheduled, either with current districts or having redistricted based on estimated data. Drawing new district lines without census data, though, would “be a cumbersome process,” according to Stagner.

“It’s going to take a lot of time and it may not be effective for a smaller municipality,” she said. “Whereas if you have an estimate that’s a little bit off for a larger town or city it wouldn’t necessarily make a big difference, for a smaller population even a small margin of error in an estimate could really throw you off.”

The commissioners were chagrined by the available options, none of which they felt ideally addressed the issue.

“There are so many questions you could ask, who knows where to begin,” Commissioner Chip Price said. “It’s just this big open-ended thing, and I think what probably concerns me the most is, yeah, we can go ahead and do something and then after the fact it may be wrong ...”

Stagner agreed, but emphasized that General Assembly intervention is the fairest adjustment under extenuating circumstances.

“I think our best hope is that the Senate Bill passes,” she said, “and that you all will have more time and the ability to draw those maps and approve new maps, get public input, by the middle of December.”

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

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