State, local elections could be postponed because of delayed Census data

Colin Campbell
·3 min read

The Census Bureau’s delays in releasing redistricting data could force local elections to be postponed in at least 35 North Carolina cities and towns, including Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro and Fayetteville.

The Census Bureau announced Friday that the data needed for the required once-a-decade redraw of electoral district lines won’t be released until Sept. 30. That’s well after the State Board of Elections’ July 21 deadline for municipalities that elect leaders through a district or ward system to submit new maps based on the latest population numbers. State legislators have indicated they could take action to postpone candidate filing periods or elections because of the delayed data.

Charlotte and the six Mecklenburg towns are scheduled to hold elections this fall, as is the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board. The primary is scheduled for Sept. 14 and the general election for Nov. 2.

“We and our staff are monitoring the Census process and considering whether any changes will need to be made to the local election schedule this year,” said Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke and co-chairman of the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee.

The delays could also affect the 2022 primaries for Congress and legislature. Lawmakers had planned to hold a redistricting session in late summer or fall to draw those lines, but they’ll need to wait for the Census Bureau data. That could affect the start of the December candidate filing period in those races.

It’s not the first time Census delays have forced local elections to be delayed. Similar problems in the 1990 Census meant the legislature passed a law allowing many towns to postpone their 1991 elections until the scheduled primary election date in 1992. Gerry Cohen, a retired staff attorney for the legislature who oversaw redistricting matters, said on Twitter Friday that the same approach could be used this year. He’s unsure, however, if the delay would be necessary for all cities and towns that use district systems — or just the ones where the district seats are only elected by residents of that district.

According to a State Board of Elections spokesman, 35 towns and cities have municipal board districts where only residents of the district can vote for their representative. The largest of those are Charlotte, Raleigh, Cary, Greenville, Wilson, Hickory, Greensboro, Jacksonville and Rocky Mount. In 27 others, election rules call for some candidates to live within a geographic district, but they’re elected by all residents of the community. Those include Durham, Concord, Weddington, Gastonia and Henderson.

Census data was originally expected to arrive this spring, giving local government boards months to adjust election districts ahead of the filing period in late July and elections in September, October and November. But a Sept. 30 data release would make it impossible to hold elections under new boundaries in the fall. In explaining the delay, the Census Bureau said in a news release that “COVID-19-related delays and prioritizing the delivery of the apportionment results delayed the Census Bureau’s original plan to deliver the redistricting data to the states by March 31, 2021.”