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OpEd: Keep city elections in odd years

The “Increase Municipal Election Participation Act” (Senate Bill 265), filed by state Sen. Tim Moffitt, would move municipal elections in several counties, including Henderson County, from odd- to even-numbered years, where they would become part of the overall national and state election cycle. In 2018, when this idea was floated by then-state Sen. Chuck Edwards, the majority of municipalities in Henderson County opposed it, citing concerns about becoming subsumed by larger national issues and losing their individual identities.

Those concerns remain valid, but in my opinion, there is an even greater downside to even-year elections—that of creating partisan division in what are now non-partisan races. I am a registered Republican, but in local elections I support non-partisan contests. Unaffiliated voters make up the largest group of registered voters in the State of North Carolina, including in Henderson County, and unaffiliated candidates bring a depth of knowledge and expertise to our local governments that is hard to match.

If local elections are moved to even years, even if they remain officially non-partisan, they will become partisan by default, since once attached to highly partisan state and national elections, voters will tend to stay in their partisan lanes as they vote down ballot. 

The two main political parties will publicly support their party candidates for local offices because they are already supporting up-ballot races, and the potential exists for unaffiliated candidates to be lost in partisan efforts to ensure party candidates for all races. 

Local governments have little influence over hot-button state or national issues like gun control, first amendment rights, abortion, or immigration. By lumping local races in with state and national elections, the focus on local concerns will be lost as the media frenzy over up-ballot state and national issues will take up most of the air in the political space. 

Keeping local elections in odd-numbered years allows for extensive and exclusive coverage of local issues—issues that should be front and center for voters without the partisan slant that will inevitably happen if bundled with state and national elections. 

Sen. Moffitt mentions two areas he thinks need to be fixed: voter turnout and election costs. I think we can agree that we want to encourage all those eligible to vote, but the right to vote includes the right not to vote (as numerous court cases can attest to). It's up to the candidates—not the political parties—to get the voters excited about voting. As one of the candidates in Flat Rock’s contentious 2019 village council race, which had the largest turnout ever in village history, believe me when I say that if there are issues that touch the voters, they will make it to the polls. 

Regarding cost, the county Board of Elections staff are permanent employees and work year-round. My research indicates that neither the county nor the state incurs any additional expense for odd-year elections. Each municipality pays for its local elections through a county assessment, and while that assessment might decrease slightly if local elections were moved to even years, the municipalities would still bear most of the cost of their own elections.

Locally-focused, non-partisan races offer the best chance of electing the most representative and committed government officials—and keeping local elections in odd-numbered years is the best way to make that happen.   

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Anne Coletta currently serves as vice mayor of Flat Rock. The opinion expressed in the column is her personal view and not intended to express the opinion of the Flat Rock Village Council.