There has been a lot of recent controversy about changes in municipal election dates from odd to even years, but mostly with little data or historical perspective.
The focus has been in Raleigh, for which the General Assembly passed a law in June changing the election date from October of the odd-year to November of the even-year, the identical system the Wake County Board of Education has.
The General Assembly in the last decade has moved municipal elections for 30 cities from odd to even year, and for all but three dictated a nonpartisan plurality election in November. (Asheville has a March nonpartisan primary to narrow the field. Winston-Salem and Lincolnton have partisan primaries). In almost all the 30 cases, the incumbent’s terms were extended a year.
Terms of members of the Wake County Board of Education elected in 2011 were extended a year. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg and one other school board also had terms extended by a year. The rate of change to even-year municipal elections has gotten swifter, the 2021 General Assembly has already moved nine cities to even-year.
Arguments for the change are turnout and cost. The increase in turnout after the date switch is staggering. Odd-year municipal turnout tends to be about 17%, while midterm turnout is 60% and presidential year 80%.
When Wake school board elections were moved to even-year, votes cast for school board candidates went from 111,000 in the 2011/13 cycle to 320,000 in 2018 (72% of those voting) and 502,000 in 2020 (79% of those voting for President). While the remainder left the school board choices blank, the 2018 tripling of the 2011/2013 vote and 2020 five-fold increase indicates that most voters gathered the information they needed to vote on school board candidates.
I’ve heard comments against the change that it will be hard for voters to find information, hard to campaign, or hard to find the race on the ballot. In 2019, 52,000 Raleigh voters voted for mayor, while 250,000 voted on the Raleigh 2020 housing bond issue, a five-fold increase. In Winston-Salem, votes for mayor jumped from 16,000 in 2013 to 120,000 in 2020. We could expect 175,000 votes to be cast for mayor of Raleigh in November 2022 and around 250,000 in 2024.
The electorate itself appears different between odd and even-numbered year based on my research, with marked increases especially among renters and younger voters who tend to skip odd-year elections. On costs, Raleigh has budgeted about $800,000 to conduct October odd-year elections, while the incremental cost to the city of the November 2020 bond issue was a small fraction of that. On ballot placement of a non-partisan municipal race, North Carolina law places it as the last race on the ballot, on the right column of what we expect to be a Wake County one-page midterm ballot, or on the right column of the back page of the presidential year ballot. It would appear right below Wake County school board and soil district supervisor, as nonpartisan races are grouped together.
Gerry Cohen is a member of the Wake County Board of Elections and a former member of the Chapel Hill Town Council. He teaches election law at Duke University’s Sanford School.