All Charlotte City Council elections, including the mayoral race, are delayed until 2022 — as some had expected to happen all along, despite a recent curveball from the General Assembly.
The City Council on Monday approved a municipal elections plan that lumps together the mayor, at-large and district races in the spring, allowing current office holders to keep their positions beyond their intended two-year terms.
Having all three elections at the same time wasn’t guaranteed. The City Council also deliberated the possibility of splitting elections with mayor and at-large representative races this year with district representatives elected next spring, as the redistricting process remains on hold.
But Council members voted to keep the elections together.
Council members Malcolm Graham, Reneé Johnson, Matt Newton, Greg Phipps and Braxton Winston voted against bifurcation. The Council’s two Republican members, Ed Driggs and Tariq Bokhari, voted to bifurcate the election cycle. Council members Larken Egleston, Julie Eiselt, Dimple Ajmera and Victoria Watlington did not attend Monday’s meeting.
“It’s just too much going on too soon,” Phipps said of a compressed elections schedule for 2021. Phipps said he spoke to constituents over the weekend who were confused by split elections, with some erroneously believing the Council was switching to a staggered elections method.
The decision on how to handle municipal elections was triggered by delayed census data that is needed to redraw City Council district maps. The information, initially expected to be released three months ago, will not be available until September.
New state legislation, which took effect Monday without Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature, tried to address the problem by delaying municipal elections until 2022 in 30 cities and towns, including Charlotte, Greensboro and Fayetteville.
But the law introduced a key caveat: at-large and mayoral races could be held this year after all, since they are not contingent on redistricting. Technically, it also meant candidates who lost in their at-large or mayoral bids could separately seek a district seat.
In the delayed schedule, City Council primaries are on March 8. The general election is April 26, or May 17 if there is a federal second primary.
Party leaders weigh in
The prospect of split elections led to sparring among Council members, which prompted Mayor Vi Lyles to call for a recess.
Tensions were high after Charlotte residents, local party leaders and activists also spoke during public forum — raising concerns about transparency, voter disenfranchisement, low voter turnout and unnecessary costs to taxpayers, among other issues.
Ryan Bergman, Charlotte’s budget director, recently said split elections could cost the city an extra $340,000, due to the city’s obligation to pay part of the county Board of Elections’ annual budget. Elections officials had cautioned the bill might be higher, depending on the number of primaries and polling locations needed.
Most speakers also cited recent Council controversies, including significant pay raises for the mayor and Council members and the 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which divided council members for months.
Bokhari, who voted against Charlotte’s fiscal year 2022 budget due to the pay hikes, rebuked his colleagues for not allowing some elections to proceed in the fall.
“Somehow, there’s a lot of people around this dais who care about fiscal responsibility,” Bokhari said, before egging on Graham — who, in turn, urged the Council to not be “intellectually dishonest” with voters.
Sarah Reidy-Jones, chair of the Mecklenburg County Republican Party, advocated for split elections, arguing the Council pay raises were “tone-deaf at best” amid the subsiding coronavirus pandemic. Council members are getting a 50% salary raise, with Lyles’ salary increasing by 41.5%.
“Employers and employees are struggling…” Reidy-Jones said. “Voters and taxpayers want to voice their opinions at the ballot boxes now, and instead, are told that the government has given themselves raises and now seek to insulate themselves from any fallout at the polls this fall.”
But Jane Whitley, chair of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party, said separating elections was “political opportunism,” spurred by the Trump administration’s handling of the 2020 census that caused the delayed data.
“It’s an attempt to confuse and disenfranchise voters while giving candidates the opportunity to take two bites of the apple,” Whitley said of candidates who could have chosen to run a second time for office in 2022, after losing in the fall.
Stephanie Sneed, chair of the Black Political Caucus, also urged the Council to delay all elections until 2022. A tight early voting window in 2021, under the split elections plan, could have harmed Black voters, as well as senior citizens and students.
“This is especially true with a compressed 2021 election cycle that will limit voter education and early voting turnout for a primary that will take place a mere 30 days after filing for candidates closes,” Sneed told Council members before their vote.
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