The Charlotte City Council and Mayor Vi Lyles are in near consensus that the city can’t hold its elections this fall because of delays in the release of census data.
But council members decided to wait on formally postponing the September primary and November general election, based on the recommendation of City Attorney Patrick Baker during a meeting Monday night.
Baker said the city can wait until April or May to make the decision to postpone and wait for the General Assembly to give Charlotte and other impacted cities and towns guidance.
The problem is due to the U.S. Census Bureau’s delay in releasing detailed population data that will allow Charlotte to draw new districts. That data would normally be released in late winter or early spring.
But the Census Bureau said recently that data won’t be ready until the end of September.
Candidate filing for the city election opens in late July. The party primaries for council and the mayor’s race are in mid-September.
“I think it’s pretty clear cut based on the deadline that we’ve seen from the census that it is not humanly or legally possible to have an election this year,” said Republican council member Tariq Bokhari.
Democratic council member Matt Newton questioned whether Baker’s recommendation to postpone the election is correct. He asked if the election could move forward as scheduled, even using old district maps that are no longer more or less equal in population.
But most council members said it’s unrealistic to suggest that the election won’t be pushed back. Democrat Braxton Winston said the council needs to acknowledge a delay is likely.
“If we had an election in November under the current law then that election would be thrown out and considered unconstitutional,” he said. “The idea of leading people on is irresponsible and counteracts the responsibility we have of not to be political but to govern.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has said that political districts – whether for Congress or City Council – should be more or less equal in size, a precedent known as “one man, one vote.” In North Carolina, the legal precedent is one district can’t be 5% larger or smaller than another district.
The city believes several of its districts today don’t meet that standard. District 3, which covers the fast-growing southwest part of the city, has more than 90,000 registered voters. District 5 in east Charlotte has less than 70,000.
Lyles said the city should have correctly sized districts before voting again.
“I just really feel like we owe our community the ability to have adequate representation in a way that addresses how we have grown in the last 10 years,” Lyle said.
Under a state law passed 30 years ago, Charlotte and other municipalities can delay their elections if new maps can’t be drawn in time.
The most likely scenario is that the city would hold its primaries in March 2022 and the general election in November eight months later.
Some council members want Baker to research whether the city charter could be changed, allowing the mayoral and at-large election to proceed this year with the district races delayed until 2022.
The census problems could also force the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board to delay its 2021 election, and the city may not be able to hold a countywide referendum on a sales tax increase for transit in November.
CMS has said it's going to ask the General Assembly for the ability to delay its election if needed.