CHARLOTTE — Charlotte City council members appear to be clear-eyed that there will not elections in 2021, due to a late release of data from the U.S. Census Bureau. City Attorney Patrick Baker told the council Monday night that the likelihood of having elections in 2021 is “slim to none.”
Earlier this month, the U.S. Census Bureau announced data won’t be released until September. The city of Charlotte needs that information to redraw districts.
“It is not humanely possible or legally possible to have an election this year,” Councilman Tariq Bokhari said.
There’s a constitutional principle commonly known as “one person, one vote,” and it requires all districts to be about the same size. North Carolina legal decisions have indicated they need to be within 5% of each other in size. Charlotte hasn’t drawn new boundary lines since 2010 and some districts are lopsided. Data presented by the city Monday night shows District 2 has more than 156,000 residents in it. District 5 only has a little more than 121,000 residents.
If the city holds an election in 2021 with the current districts, lawsuits will likely be filed. The city was able to get away with holding elections in 2019 because the Census wasn’t conducted at that point.
“If we have an election in November under the current law, that election would be thrown out and considered unconstitutional,” Councilman Braxton Winston said. “The idea of leading people on, I think, is irresponsible.”
Rather than vote to delay the elections, the Charlotte City Council is holding off on any decisions to see if the General Assembly acts. Dozens of municipalities in the state are in the same situation as Charlotte. There is also a concern about how an election delay will be received. If the city opts to delay elections until 2022, all current members of the city council will get another year in office. The 2022 election would be for a one-year term.
“The optics of the council, particularly in February, voting to delay our elections a year will strike many wrongly, but it will strike them as us not wanting to face the voters or us wanting to extend our term,” Councilman Larken Egleston said.
Councilman Malcolm Graham believes voters will be receptive to the change when they understand why it is being made.
“I don’t think anyone is saying we want to add another year to our terms,” Councilman Graham said. “Some people want to get out of here right?”
The rate of Charlotte’s proposed sales tax increase referendum for a Transformational Mobility Network is unclear. The city is unable to put the measure on the ballot by itself. District elections are also on the ballot for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. If CMS postpones it elections, the city will not be able to put the sales tax referendum on the 2021 ballot. Unlike city council, CMS has nonpartisan elections. It is unclear if a 2021 election for CMS would draw a lawsuit. However, even if CMS holds elections, turnout will be extremely low. City leaders would have to weigh impact of low turnout on the chances of the referendum passing.
Baker said the city is not able to only hold at-large and mayoral elections because more time would be needed to implement a change in city election structure. Any proposal for staggered four-year terms would need to be implemented in the following election.
The city estimates census data will have to arrive at the latest July 21 for there to be a shot at holding elections in 2021. If the city holds elections in 2022, they will be aligned with the other elections in Mecklenburg County. Filing will be in December 2021. The primary will be in March, second primary in April and the general election will be in November.
The Charlotte City Council is hoping state lawmakers take this issue up in the coming weeks. Without state action, a vote could come to postpone elections by May.
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