Sunday, April 11, 2021

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Council mulls whether to seek delay in 2021 elections, or urge they be held

State official had recommended all 2021 elections across state be postponed

A state-level dilemma over the timing of this year’s municipal elections drew no shortage of armchair analysis from the members of Burlington’s city council last week.

The council ultimately devoted nearly two hours over the course of three meetings to this scheduling conundrum, which has its roots in a state official’s proposal that the General Assembly should postpone this fall’s elections due to the belated release of federal census results.

The council ostensibly mired itself in this legislative prerogative at the behest of state representative Dennis Riddell, an Alamance County Republican who serves on the state house committee for election law and campaign finance reform as well as a joint committee concerned with the oversight of elections. Riddell was credited with inquiring into the council’s position when its members kicked off their conversation about the election’s timetable during a monthly work session last Monday. The city’s leaders resumed their discussion at a regular council meeting last Tuesday, and they eventually signed off on a one-page position letter to the state representative during a special-called meeting on Thursday.

Riddell told The Alamance News that he had yet to receive the council’s missive when the newspaper contacted him about it on Monday. In either case, the state representative proved less solicitous of the council’s opinion than he’d been portrayed in the council’s discussions last week. In fact, Riddell told the newspaper that he’ll be more interested to hear from communities outside his own district where the delayed results of the census have a direct stake on municipal elections.

“I want to find out, not how it affects our municipalities in Alamance County, but how it affects other localities,” Riddell went on to acknowledge, “because whatever decision is made, it has to be uniform across the state.”

The spark that touched off the firestorm over this year’s elections was originally lit on February 23 when Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of the N.C. Board of Elections, urged the General Assembly to delay all of the municipal votes that are slated to take place this fall. Bell recommended this move in response to an announcement from the U.S. Census Bureau that it wouldn’t have the results of last year’s head count available for dozens of North Carolina municipalities before candidate registration for this year’s elections takes place in July.

The delay in these numbers is particularly problematic for communities like Greensboro and Durham that elect some of their council members by districts or wards, whose boundaries are redrawn after every federal census. Yet, Bell’s recommendation to postpone all of this year’s elections seems to have extended the angst to other cities like Burlington, which elect their leaders at large and, therefore, have no need for fresh census results before voters go to the polls.

Riddell told The Alamance News that he recently spoke to one official in Burlington who was anxious about the prospect of a statewide revision in the schedule for this year’s elections.

“I’ve had a phone call which was basically a request to let the election go ahead as planned this year,” the state representative recalled.

According to Burlington’s city manager Hardin Watkins, the call to Riddell came from Burlington’s mayor Ian Baltutis, who he said had contacted the state representative in response to a “legislative alert” about Bell’s recommendation to the General Assembly. Riddell said that his initial reply to this entreaty was to ask whether it reflected the consensus of Burlington’s city council. This innocuous inquiry was apparently taken to be as a serious request for the council’s input. It was certainly presented that way last Monday, when Watkins invited the council to consider a response to Riddell at the end of a regularly-scheduled work session that evening.

The potential delay of this year’s elections raised some practical dilemmas for the council about matters like term lengths. But the prospect of a council election in 2022 seemed like a promising idea to councilman Harold Owen, who is one of the two regular council members up for reelection this year.

Owen argued that the postponement of this year’s election until 2022 would allow the city’s municipal election to coincide with the various county, state, and federal contests that routinely occur in even-numbered years. As a result, he said that the next council race could see a much higher turnout than it would get in an odd-numbered year when only municipal offices are at stake.

The council continued to bandy around this possibility along with other election-related matters for the next half hour or so. They ultimately resumed their discussion during a regular council meeting on the following evening.

The council’s continued discussion began with a few words from councilman Jim Butler, who had departed Monday’s work session before the council became embroiled in its debate about the election. Butler ultimately embraced much the same line as Owen as he considered the advantages of a municipal election in an even-numbered year.

“You don’t get many times for a trial run on something,” he acknowledged. “It does seem like a little bit of a redundant expense to have off year-elections just for municipal purposes…The other thing is that as long as I’ve been involved in government, voter turnout for municipal elections has always been moderate to poor at best, and I would like to see more community involvement beyond just voter turnout.”

The council went on to wrangle over these issues for the better part of an hour without ever reaching a consensus on the potential postponement of this year’s municipal elections. Its members also discussed a number of tangential issues, such as the possible adoption of a ward system and the addition of more council seats – both of which have been previously floated as ways to drum up more competition for the council’s regular seats.

With no resolution to show for their efforts last Tuesday, the council’s members decided to reprise their discussion during a special-called meeting on Thursday. The council had originally scheduled this meeting in order to hold an unrelated vote on a company’s application for a building reuse grant from the state. But this relatively brief session also gave its members an opportunity to consider a prospective position letter that city staff members had roughed out based on the council’s earlier discussion.

The staff’s one-page communiqué points out that the delayed data from the last federal census has no direct bearing on Burlington since none of its council members is elected by districts or wards which are shaped by population figures. The missive nevertheless endorses a one-time postponement of this fall’s municipal elections – with the proviso that the change should occur statewide to avoid any confusion.

The council went on to give this letter a unanimous nod without any additional debate during the special called meeting.

Riddell told The Alamance News that, at the moment, there are no bills before the General Assembly that propose to tinker with the schedule for this year’s municipal elections. The state representative added that any such legislation will presumably be referred to the elections committee – at which point, he said, he’ll consider more than just parochial concerns in his own evaluation of the proposal.

Riddell said that the General Assembly may choose, in the end, to postpone all of this year’s municipal elections or, alternately, leave the decision up to each locality. He noted, however, that the latter option could lead to a situation where incumbent officials in some municipalities remain in power longer than their designated terms.


See related story on mayor’s suggestion to eliminate Burlington’s primary elections:  https://alamancenews.com/mayor-presses-to-eliminate-city-primaries/

See the newspaper’s editorial view on Burlington elections:  https://alamancenews.com/we-need-more-elections-not-fewer/

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