Breaking: State elections board says postpone municipal elections

BY D. LARS DOLDER, News + Record Staff
Posted 2/24/21

RALEIGH — State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell recommended the General Assembly take action to delay the state’s 2021 municipal elections.

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Breaking: State elections board says postpone municipal elections

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RALEIGH — State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell recommended the General Assembly take action to delay the state’s 2021 municipal elections in a presentation before the Election Law and Campaign Finance Reform Committee this week.

Bell asked the 21-person standing committee of the N.C. House of Representatives to consider a one-year postponement on Wednesday, affording the state and county boards of election time to adjust “because of the delay in the census data.”

Census results are instrumental in decennial state and municipal redistricting processes, which are scheduled to occur this year, and must by law precede the election season if a town’s demographics have changed substantially in the previous 10 years.   

“Redistricting is, as most folks are aware, the process of redrawing districts so that each district has roughly the same number of people,” demographer Blake Esselstyn told Siler City’s board of commissioners earlier this month. “And in order to do that you need to have accurate numbers about the number of people in each census block.”

There are 62 municipalities statewide with 2021 elections scheduled that organize by districts or wards, according to NCSBE Election Communication Specialist Noah Grant. 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,” Grant said. “They use them for filing purposes.”

State law requires that people running for office in towns with districts or wards file for candidacy between July 26 and August 13.

“If they are redistricting,” Grant said, “those municipalities must complete the process by July 21,” according to current statute.

Under normal circumstances, the U.S. Census Bureau would have delivered its latest data by March, affording towns and boards of election enough time to redistrict and revise voter classifications in advance of the July deadlines. Citing “COVID-19-related delays,” however, the Census Bureau announced this month that it could not provide states with census results until September — well after 2021 filing should have taken place.

That creates an irreconcilable conundrum for municipal governments.

“We have identified that it is a two-month process for us to complete what’s necessary once we receive district information,” Bell said in the committee meeting. “... That two-month process is necessary for us to get the right filing done as well as the correct voting districts for voters and the correct ballot styles.”

Given the timeline, “we cannot carry out those elections if we do not have the proper districts for them to do the filing in July,” Bell added.

County boards of election need time, as well, to analyze redistricted municipalities in advance of town elections.

“And we just wouldn’t have enough,” said Chance Mashburn, an elections specialist at the Chatham County Board of Elections.

Many North Carolina towns do not operate according to districts or wards, such as Pittsboro. But Bell urged the legislators to postpone all 2021 elections to maintain uniformity and avoid voter confusion.

If the General Assembly chooses to delay municipal elections, it’s unclear how successive abnormalities will be resolved.

“I’m very concerned about one point,” said Rep. Frank Iler (R-Dist. 17) in response to Bell’s presentation. Citing the two-year terms that are common for municipal officials, he worried that “we’re talking about having a three-year term and a one-year term, or some confusing conglomeration if we push those back.”

Bell did not offer recommendations for addressing such concerns in the meeting Wednesday, but promised to further detail the NCSBE’s plan before the General Assembly moves to enact any changes.

If state legislators do not postpone them, 2021 elections will have to follow current district mapping, according to House Minority Leader Robert Reives II (D-Dist. 54).

“The two options that I’ve heard of,” he told the News + Record, “are either pushing it back a year or to run on the old maps and then draw the districts and run a new election the very next year.”

Both solutions have their merit, said Reives, whose district includes Chatham and parts of Durham County, and neither seems to have gained more traction on the General Assembly floor than the other.

“I think it just hasn’t gotten much attention yet,” he said.

Legislators will have to act soon, though, to authorize a solution.

“With the census data not coming in until September, that’s too late to make a decision,” Reives said. “So, really, in my mind, you have to have a decision in by June or July.”

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


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