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State may delay city elections until 2022

RALEIGH — With new U.S. Census data not expected until September, the State Board of Elections is recommending moving all of this year’s municipal elections to 2022.

Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell also told the elections board Tuesday that she recommends delaying the 2022 primary elections from March until May.

The changes would need to be passed by the General Assembly. Bell said she would present these recommendations to a House committee on Wednesday, Feb. 24.

Sixty-two municipalities, including North Carolina’s largest city of Charlotte, use districts or wards to elect council members. These districts are reapportioned every decade with data provided in the U.S. Census. In Henderson County, Mills River, Fletcher and Flat Rock all have districts while council members in Hendersonville and Laurel Park are elected at large. Henderson County commissioners are also elected from districts, although the next election for those seats is in 2022.

Data local and state governments use to redraw boundaries traditionally is furnished by the end of March, and redistricting is completed by the summer. But the U.S. Census Bureau said results this year would be delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Numbers won’t be delivered to the states until Sept. 30.

This poses a problem for the 2021 municipal elections. Filing is currently set to begin in July. Holding elections under previous census data could pose constitutional and other legal issues for those 62 municipalities.

The delayed census results could also create a tight turnaround for the 2022 primary elections, which are scheduled for March. North Carolina could be in line for an additional seat in Congress due to population growth.

Once redistricting is complete, it takes about two months for the State Board of Elections to finish coding and preparing ballots for the new districts.

Thus, Bell recommended moving the 2022 primary to May. That election will include several high-profile contests, most notably the party primaries for the U.S. Senate. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr has announced his retirement at the end of this term, creating an open seat.

The recommendations were met with little comment by the State Board of Elections members. One member said he was hesitant to endorse the changes.

“It causes me some heartburn to talk about making such a sweeping change,” board member Stacy Eggers said. Chairman Damon Circosta said he trusted the General Assembly would make the right decision.

Off-year elections tend to have significantly lower turnout than even-year federal election cycles. Moving municipal elections to 2022 could pose problems for Republicans in urban areas, which have trended Democratic in recent years.