City Council considers new election timelines as delays in census data push out redistricting process
Britt Clampitt
City Council redistricting

Council members weigh deferring the 2021 election versus proceeding with outdated district population numbers

Expecting a delay in receiving 2020 census data, the Charlotte City Council is now weighing two paths and timelines for redrawing City Council district boundaries, a process known as redistricting, and holding the next round of city elections.

Redistricting stems from the “one person, one vote” principle of creating political equality and balance by ensuring all districts are the same size.

“The logic of that is that you don't want to have one district with 300,000 people and another district with 50,000 people, each having one representative, because that would sort of give more power, as it were, to the smaller districts,” said City Council member and chair of the Budget & Effectiveness Committee Ed Driggs during the committee’s Feb. 16 meeting.

How often does the city have to redraw City Council district boundaries?

As a governmental body that includes representatives from seven specific, geographic districts, as well as at-large representatives, the City of Charlotte is due for redistricting. Municipalities are required to comply with the “one person, one vote” rule, but can only redraw districts after a census or an annexation involving a significant population change. Charlotte last updated its district boundaries in 2010 under the redistricting process.

Now, more than ten years later, the city is faced with population disparities among the seven City Council districts.

United States legal rulings have determined the populations of electoral districts in a jurisdiction can differ by no more than 10%. In North Carolina, legal decisions have narrowed that requirement down to no more than 5%.

According to 2018 data from the city’s Quality of Life Explorer, there is now a significant difference in the populations of Charlotte City Council districts, such as the 25% disparity between District 5 in east Charlotte, with 121,349 residents, and north Charlotte's District 2, with 156,181 residents.

However, on Feb. 12, the U.S. Census Bureau announced it would extend its deadline for delivering redistricting data to states from March 31 to Sept. 30 because of "COVID-19-related delays."

Locally, the delay is affecting the 2021 timeline for City Council elections.

How does census data help determine City Council district boundaries and election schedules?

The city typically receives new data from the Census Bureau in March after a census is completed. According to North Carolina law, City Council must then "evaluate the existing district boundaries to determine whether it would be lawful to hold the next election without revising districts to correct population imbalances." If redistricting is found to be necessary, the city spends three to four months creating and adopting a redistricting plan.

If an election is scheduled for the same year census data is made available, any redistricting plan must be adopted three business days before the candidate filing period opens.

To hold a 2021 election in Charlotte with redrawn boundaries, redistricting would need to be completed by July 21, three business days before July 26, the first day candidates can file in municipalities with district contests.

However, the city expects to receive the data as late as September, delaying the district revision process and pushing the filing period into December 2021 at the earliest—well past the current 2021 election timeline, which is scheduled to conclude with a Nov. 2 general election.

"Legally speaking, once you've done that census, that's really the part that kicks in and says you can't do 2021 until you've looked at your districts and made those changes," said City Attorney Patrick Baker.

What options does City Council have for redistricting and the upcoming election?

Without updated population data available sooner, and a corresponding plan to redraw districts, the Charlotte City Council is left with two options: proceed with the 2021 election using current district maps, or defer the election until 2022.

Option one: proceed with the 2021 election using the current district maps

One option council members are weighing is moving forward with the current 2021 election timeline using the existing district boundaries. However, the city could face legal challenges for using outdated district numbers after a census has taken place.

"I think you have to understand we're dealing with the least of evils here, so we don't have a perfect solution," Driggs said. "Either we try to get something done this year, in which case it could only be on the basis of the old districts and in clear violation of the one person, one vote, or we defer until next year and that does have issues related to it."

Option two: Defer the election until 2022.

Should the Charlotte City Council choose to defer the election until 2022, the city election schedule would shift to correspond with Mecklenburg County elections. If the Census Bureau provides census data in September and a redistricting plan is adopted, the candidate filing period would take place Dec. 6-17, followed by a primary election on March 8, 2022, and a potential primary run-off election on April 26, 2022. Finally, a general election would be held on Nov. 8, 2022.

Following this schedule and under current state law, sitting Charlotte City Council members' terms would extend by one year, until the 2022 election. City Council members elected in 2022 would have a one-year term until another election is held in 2023.

Other considerations

City Council members are also anticipating the North Carolina General Assembly may create a statewide solution that supersedes any action by the City of Charlotte. More than 40 municipalities across the state also have governing bodies with district-specific representatives and are facing the same election issues this year.

During the Budget & Effectiveness Committee meeting on Tuesday, council members also discussed how a change in the election schedule could impact a potential voter referendum anticipated for November to help fund the Transformational Mobility Network. This network of countywide transit and transportation projects would improve residents' access to jobs, housing, education, and other necessities and amenities.

A mobility referendum cannot be the only item on a ballot. If the city defers its election, including the mobility referendum on this year's ballot may depend on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education elections, currently scheduled for November. The school board's six district representatives are also up for election, but their races do not require primaries and may be less affected by the delayed census data. Being on a different election timeline means CMS board elections may still move forward this year.

Charlotte City Council members will discuss redistricting during their regular meeting on Monday. The meeting will begin at 3 p.m. Watch it live on the city's Facebook or YouTube pages, or on the GOV Channel.