Monday, June 14, 2021

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
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We need more elections, not fewer

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We were very concerned to read the recommendation of Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, last month, to delay upcoming elections.

In particular, Brinson Bell suggested that this year’s municipal elections, now set for November 2, should be postponed until sometime in 2022. She also recommended that the 2022 party primaries, now scheduled for March 8 of next year, should also be delayed.

Both recommendations are based on the announcement from the U.S. Census Bureau that national census data will be delayed.

Now, we understand some validity on delaying the 2022 primaries, mainly because new congressional districts must be drawn, and they are dependent on population counts and shifts.

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But the census has very little to do with most municipal elections.

In Alamance County, for instance, it matters not one whit, as far as elections go, what the census says about population in local municipalities or the county as a whole.

Only in the few North Carolina cities (typically the largest) that use a precinct or ward system might it matter. Voting lines might be tweaked a bit, here and there, based on metropolitan shifts in population.

And while it would be nice to have such census information in time for large municipal governments to reset their ward lines, it is not imperative – or so significant as to imperil the people’s right to vote, as usual, this year for their municipal leaders across the state.

We’re also not at all keen on simply extending the terms of current officeholders, without letting the people have their say on who they want representing them.

Giving an extra six months, or even a year, is way too much time. Frankly, we’ve always liked the Colonial period standard of having annual elections.

But even if the General Assembly decides some delay might be necessary for the largest cities, there’s no reason that should cause a delay in most other places across the state, including Alamance County’s municipalities.

And the idea of giving current elected officials a whole extra year, presumably short-changing those who would be elected in 2022 (having shorter terms until regular biennial voting returns in 2023) is particularly troublesome.

After much flailing about, Burlington’s city council finally came down, we think, on the side of recommending to the county’s legislative delegation that their election schedule should go forward as is: on November 2, 2021.

A couple of other points raised during the debate deserve some further contemplation by the public at large.

Some council members, lamenting the typically low turnout in off-year elections, suggested that piggy-backing municipal elections onto 2022 elections, presumably during whatever delayed primary date is set, could improve turnout.

Maybe that would be true. We certainly share a strong preference to have higher voter turnout.

Much of the discussion seemed to have overlooked, or forgotten, that municipal elections are typically held in odd-numbered years precisely because, unlike even-year elections, municipal elections are, for the most part, non-partisan.

We’ve voiced before our concerns that some factors appear to be trying, in effect, to move municipal elections in a more partisan direction even while they remain, ostensibly, non-partisan.

Locally, Democrats, in particular, have taken to providing “slates” of their favorite candidates in non-partisan city and town elections. Not surprisingly, all of their “endorsements,” all of their “slates,” have been comprised entirely of loyal Democrats.

If we’re going to have de facto partisan elections, however, we believe legislators should go all out – and establish partisan, rather than non-partisan, municipal elections.

Is there a Republican vs. Democratic way to pick up trash, pave streets, or handle other municipal services? Possibly so. Maybe we should give it a try.

Specific to Burlington, however, is the self-serving suggestion by the city’s mayor that, perhaps, the city could “save money” by eliminating the primary election that typically occurs, or at least can occur, in October before the election.

In Burlington, if more than two people file for any seat, it triggers a primary the month before the general election so that voters can narrow their field to two candidates. That way, on election day, voters will traditionally elect a mayor and two council members who receive a majority of the votes cast.

Mayor Ian Baltutis is correct that he has handily beaten back challengers – in 2019, for instance – both in the primary and in the general election.

We suspect he fears, however, that one or more candidates of greater weight and stature might step forward this year (or whenever is the next city election) to challenge him. Baltutis’ increasingly liberal, even radical, comments and actions – not the least of which has been marching in Graham last year with Rev. Gregory Drumwright of Greensboro – could dampen enthusiasm for his reelection.

To eliminate the primary as Baltutis suggests doesn’t guarantee that he or the council winners would actually enjoy majority voter support.

In fact, we’ve long liked and admired Burlington’s primary system.

We think more local towns and cities might benefit from the philosophy. As it is now, when lots of candidates run in Graham and Mebane, for instance (as happened in 2019), the voters are seriously splintered such that winning candidates do not always have an actual majority of support from the voters who turned out.

What we find uproariously ironic is the claim that $30K spent on a primary election is so relatively expensive and unnecessary. Why, Burlington city government wastes more than that every other week of the year.

It’s not too much to spend money on people getting to choose who represents them in office.

Like we said, we’d rather spend that kind of money annually so the people can have more say in who’s running their cities and towns.

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