Local Politics

Delayed census could push some local elections back to 2022

Posted February 19, 2021 7:33 p.m. EST
Updated February 23, 2021 1:29 p.m. EST

— Problems at the U.S. Census Bureau could leave some local governments in limbo this fall.

After the census every 10 years, cities, counties and states use the data to redraw their voting districts before the next election to make sure their population is evenly divided among the districts. That's especially important in areas that have added a lot of people.

"Certainly, in Wake County, we’re growing fast," said Greg Flynn, chairman of the county elections board. "The municipalities are growing, not just the growth of population in existing boundaries, but the boundaries are growing. We’re continuously annexing land, so things get out of whack."

The census data usually starts coming out in January, allowing plenty of time to redraw maps before fall elections. But the coronavirus pandemic, court fights and data problems have put the census months behind schedule.

"The problem is that the data now won’t be out till the end of September, so it’s impossible to carry out that task," said Gerry Cohen, a longtime staffer at the General Assembly and a redistricting expert.

Raleigh, Cary, Morrisville, Durham and Fayetteville and about 20 other North Carolina cities have some or all of their council members elected in districts, meaning they would have to postpone their elections from October and November.

They’ll likely hold them next spring during the 2022 primary.

Feb. 23, 2021, update: State Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell today backed a delay, until 2022, for all North Carolina municipal elections. She also wants to delay the March 2022 congressional primaries until May. Brinson Bell will take these recommendations before the N.C. General Assembly Wednesday, February 22.

Cities that elect their councils at large, like Apex and Knightdale, could hold elections this fall, but Flynn said he hopes they decide to wait until spring 2022 as well. A patchwork of different election dates can confuse voters and lower turnout, he said.

"Whatever they decide, we’ll do," he said. "We’re running the elections for them, but it seems like there are lots of opportunities for things to go wrong."

Flynn said he'd like to see state lawmakers step in and move all municipal elections statewide to next spring.

"Ideally, the legislature would make some decision and put everybody on the same page," he said.

Lawmakers haven't decided what, if anything, to do. State elections director Karen Brinson Bell is expected to talk to them next week about possible options.

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