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City elections ‘in a holding pattern’ as candidates begin to declare

Although candidate announcements are trickling in for municipal elections, no one can say whether elections for city council and mayoral seats will happen this year.

Tangled in a census delay and uncertainty from the N.C. Board of Elections and state Legislature, the 2021 elections could take place as scheduled or could be delayed until next year, Henderson County Elections Director Karen Hebb told the county elections board last week.
“I’m hoping they will allow us to hold our municipal elections at the regular time,” Hebb told the county Board of Elections last week. “We’ve just been telling people that call our office that it’s still undecided. Hopefully, they will let us go ahead and have our elections.”
The muddle is caused by a delay in official numbers from the 2020 census. In years past, the census has provided the fresh headcount to states, cities and counties by March so elected officials could redraw districts to ensure they’re balanced in population. This year, the numbers are not available and may not be until weeks after the July filing period.
“Well, that just doesn’t work,” Robert Joyce, a Harvard law graduate who is an elections law expert at the UNC School of Government, said in a March 1 article entitled “Time for Cities, Counties and School Boards to Redistrict But No Numbers!” “You have to have the districts in place before the filing period, so candidates know what seat to file their notices of candidacy for. But the new numbers are not expected until September.”
Joyce projects a variety of options for this year’s municipal elections and even for the 2022 cycle, when counties and school boards will need to redistrict.
“The General Assembly can, if it chooses, delay the 2021 municipal elections, giving cities time to receive the new census numbers, draw the new districts, have candidates file, and go through the election,” he said. “If the General Assembly does that, it will, at the same time, extend the terms of incumbent city council members who were to be up for re-election in 2021. They would simply stay in office until after the delayed elections. Yes, the General Assembly has the authority to do that.”
The problem is complicated by the fact that most cities, including all five in Henderson County, elect council members at large. In the three towns that require candidates to live in a district — Flat Rock, Fletcher and Laurel Park — voters elect the candidates at large. As Joyce explains: “In some cities, the voting is at large but the candidates must reside in defined districts. To be elected from District One, I must reside in District One, but everyone in the city votes for that seat. In that system there is no need to redistrict after a census, since the voting is done at large. These cities will hold their elections on the regular 2021 schedule, unless the General Assembly directs differently.”
Statewide, just 35 of the state’s 532 municipalities elect council members by district or ward.
“Exactly what happens with municipal elections in 2021 will be up to the General Assembly and/or the municipalities individually,” Patrick Gannon, public information officer for the state Board of Elections said in an email response to questions from the Lightning. “We do not know at this point, but there has been and will continue to be a great deal of discussion among the municipalities, the General Assembly and the State Board as to the best path forward.”
The state’s elections director, Karen Brinson Bell, has urged the Legislature to postpone city elections statewide. That leaves local boards of elections in the dark.
“Karen Brinson had suggested that they call off the election to avoid confusion,” Hebb said. “She thought it was a bad idea that some would have elections this year and some would have to wait. … Since Karen went before the Legislature and suggested that we wait, we’re kind of in a holding pattern. I think the Legislature would let the state Board of Elections know because it’s up to them.”
So far, candidates who have filed a campaign committee organization statements are John Olsen, for District 1 in Fletcher; Debbie Roundtree, for mayor of Hendersonville; and Raphael Morales, for Hendersonville City Council. If the elections are held this year, the filing period would be July 2-16 for Hendersonville and Laurel Park, and July 26-Aug. 13 for Flat Rock, Fletcher and Mills River.