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Census Delays Could Delay Charlotte City Council, CMS Fall Elections

I Voted stickers
Tom Bullock
The city of Charlotte and CMS need census data to draw new districts to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling of "One Person, One Vote." With the release of that delayed, both are scrambling to determine how they can draw new maps in time for their fall elections.

The release of highly detailed, precinct-by-precinct population counts from the 2020 census has been delayed by several months, which could impact the elections for the Charlotte City Council and Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.

The Census Bureau announced Wednesday that the data – known as PL 94-171 files — may not be released until the end of July, as opposed to winter or early spring as planned.

The problem is that data will be used to draw new districts for Charlotte City Council and the CMS board – and is scheduled to be released after filing opens for those elections on July 26.

That leaves the two governments in a difficult position.

They could press forward with their elections as scheduled. But that could open them up to lawsuits that they are violating the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedent of “One Person, One Vote.”

They could also choose to delay their elections until 2022.

Thirty years ago, the General Assembly was concerned about delays from the 1990 census. It passed legislation that said if “population imbalances are so significant that it would not be lawful to hold the next election using the current electoral districts” a government may push its election into the next year.

“The law basically says your election is going to be delayed,” said Gerry Cohen, who was a longtime attorney for the General Assembly. “And it sets out a rubric for how it’s delayed based on what election system you have.”

Cohen said he doesn’t know whether there would be legal challenges to a 2021 election held with 2010 census data.

“So what (happens) if they refuse to do that (delay their election)? The question is what if someone litigates it," he said. "I have no idea if anyone will litigate it. People seem rather litigious recently.”

Charlotte City Attorney Patrick Baker said he hopes the General Assembly gives some guidance, or perhaps passes new legislation that allows for local governments to hold their elections as planned.

But he said a delayed election is a possibility.

“We’re monitoring it,” he said. “But if you are talking about an end-of-July situation, then that will be well past the time we need information and I’m hoping the legislature will potentially give us some other options. But the option we would have in front of us would be to push the election back a year.”

Growing Charlotte, Changing Districts

After a decade of explosive growth, Charlotte’s City Council districts aren’t the right size.

District 3, which covers the fast-growing southwest part of the city, has more than 90,000 registered voters. District 5 in east Charlotte has less than 70,000.

In addition to the U.S. Supreme Court decision of One Person, One Vote, North Carolina courts have said districts must can’t be 5% greater or smaller than any other district in the same government.

CMS is unlikely to meet that standard if it kept lines based on the 2010 census.

For instance, CMS board member Rhonda Cheek’s north Mecklenburg district has roughly 141,000 registered voters. Carole Sawyer’s east Charlotte district has less than 104,000.

“Local redistricting can take months,” said Blake Esselstyn, a demographer who has written about the census delays and the impact on elections. “And if we don’t get the redistricting data until the end of July,that is a major problem for municipalities because typically their filing period begins at the end of July.”

CMS lobbyist Charles Jeter said the school system is already forming a task force to prepare for redistricting because he knows it won’t have much time.

“We want to do a lot of the work on the front end,” he said.

While he said CMS staff can be prepared to draw new maps quickly, he said the required public hearings on the new districts can’t be sped up. He said it may difficult to have the election as scheduled this fall — unless the General Assembly changes the filing period for candidates.

School board elections are nonpartisan. Board members are on the ballot in November.

Because CMS elections are nonpartisan, the board could, in theory, hold a delayed election March 2022, on the date of the state primary.

City Council elections are partisan and the city is scheduled to hold a primary Sept. 14.

If the city were to delay its elections, they would be pushed to the fall of 2022. That makes council member Larken Egleston uncomfortable.

“There's going to be a lot of municipalities looking for relief on this front,” he said. “I think a lot of people are going to find themselves in a bind and unsure what to do. And I don’t think voters will be satisfied with the answer of, – 'Well we’re going to extend our terms a year.'”

Council members have only briefly discussed the census delays. Council member Malcolm Graham said they realize that the process of drawing new districts may be delayed – but haven’t discussed the impact to the actual election.

There are dozens of other North Carolina counties with elections based on districts, like Union, Iredell and Anson.

Some attorneys speculate that the General Assembly could step in, and push back all 2021 fall elections in which candidates are elected from districts.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.