In theory, Election Day is months away, but it’s still not yet known when voters will elect the next mayor of Charlotte.
It might happen this fall, as originally planned. Or, it might not be until next spring.
The decision is up to the Charlotte City Council, which will receive public comment and potentially vote on the elections schedule during Monday’s meeting.
Charlotte leaders had initially expected to receive census data by the end of March, data that is needed to draw new Council district maps to equitably balance the city’s fast-growing population by late July. But the coronavirus pandemic scrambled that deadline, and the redistricting information from the U.S. Census Bureau won’t be available until September.
In February, city attorney Patrick Baker said the prospects of proceeding with City Council elections in November were “slim to none,” meaning elected officials would automatically serve an additional year in office.
Council members, who were sworn in December 2019, are elected for two-year terms.
State lawmakers tried to address the problem of delayed elections through Senate Bill 722, which will become law without Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature
While delays to census data caused by the pandemic necessitate changes to local elections, decisions about local elections like these should involve more open discussion and public input and therefore these changes will become law without my signature,” Cooper said in a statement Friday.
The bill contains a key caveat: At-large and mayoral races are not contingent on census results and are still allowed this November.
So it is up to Charlotte City Council members to determine if they want to choose that option. If they do, district races would occur on a separate timetable.
The split approach could throw City Council dynamics and campaigning season out of sync. With either a split or fully delayed elections calendar, all Council members’ terms would end in December 2023.
“There are really no good answers here,” said Jane Pinsky, director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform. “Like many other things that came out of the pandemic, we’re going to do things that are different from what we would have done in the past that are sub-optimal. This is truly a more than 100-year occurrence.”
Elections for members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School board, meanwhile, are moved back by a full year, according to a separate provision in the legislation.
Here’s more information on the City Council elections quandary and what this could cost taxpayers.
Do I get to vote for City Council this fall?
The City Council must notify the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections by July 19 whether elections will be bifurcated, according to city attorney Patrick Baker.
If that happens, the public would weigh in on five seats this fall: the mayor and four at-large representatives. Those seats are held by Mayor Vi Lyles, Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt, Braxton Winston, Dimple Ajmera and Greg Phipps (who was appointed to fill a vacancy from James “Smuggie” Mitchell).
“Give residents an opportunity to decide on five seats out of 12,” Ajmera urged during a recent Budget & Effectiveness Committee meeting. “It does give them some level of participation in 2021.”
What’s the potential schedule this fall?
Mayoral and at-large candidates would face a compressed election timeline:
▪ Candidate filing: July 26-Aug. 13
▪ Primaries: Sept. 14
▪ Second primaries: Oct. 5
▪ General election: Nov. 2
During this time, the City Council — including district representatives ramping up for their own elections — would also pore over census data and draw new districts by Nov. 17.
If Council meets that deadline, candidates with delayed elections can file for office between Dec. 6-17. If Council needs an extension to draw the maps, the filing period would be pushed back to early January.
What’s the schedule for next spring?
The primary for district races (and the mayor and at-large seats, if these races are delayed), would be March 8, followed by a general election on April 26.
The seven district representatives on Council cannot run this fall, as outlined by the state legislation.
Those seats are held by: Larken Egleston, District 1; Malcolm Graham, District 2; Victoria Watlington, District 3; Reneé Johnson, District 4; Matt Newton, District 5; Tariq Bokhari, District 6; and Ed Driggs, District 7.
Does Council have a preference?
For some Council members, the simpler solution is to hold all elections in 2022.
”It seems a little bit awkward to split (elections) up,” Eiselt said during the Budget & Effectiveness Committee meeting. “It just seems pretty chaotic to me, and I think it’s going to confuse voters. It’s questionable who’s going to show up to vote in November versus doing it all at once in March.”
Other city leaders say delaying elections means shirking away from voters — and the prospect of being held accountable for a term mired in controversy, including police reform, hefty mayoral and Council raises, and Charlotte’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan.
“When we talk about democracy, this is the scheduled year for the election,” Johnson said. “We want to be aboveboard and do what’s best for our residents.”
It’s crucial that city leaders listen to voter concerns and find ways to engage with the public, ideally beyond regular Council meetings, Pinsky said.
“The biggest dynamic is going to be — no matter what (Council members) do — there are going to be people that are unhappy,” Pinsky said.
How much will this cost taxpayers?
This could be an expensive proposition.
The trouble is elected leaders did not budget for this scenario, which could be exacerbated if second primaries are needed in the fall and spring.
Charlotte is not billed per election, but is responsible for 40% of the county Board of Elections’ annual budget, said BOE public information manager Kristin Mavromatis.
“We’ve only budgeted for two elections,” Mavromatis said. “Anything over that, the city will have to pay 40%. The county doesn’t absorb that cost. The county will bill them their 40%”
Charlotte may end up paying an extra $340,000 for the split election, according to city Budget Director Ryan Bergman. However, that bill could be higher depending on the number of primaries and other costs, like opening additional polling locations.
Can people run twice?
There’s another interesting wrinkle to Senate Bill 722.
Under state law, candidates cannot run for two offices that have the same filing period and election date, said Gerry Cohen, a former special counsel to the N.C. General Assembly who now serves on the Wake County Board of Elections.
Still, a split election means there are two filing periods and an extra shot at public office.
“Somebody could run for mayor or at-large, and if they lost, choose to run for district Council when the filing opens Dec. 6,” Cohen said. “That would be a sort of nuance here.”
The fall could be a chance to build name recognition and rally voter support, especially among newcomers battling incumbents, Pinsky said.
How many people will choose that route, if Council opens up the possibility on Monday, remains an open question.