by Eric Ginsburg
A lawsuit filed by the city of Greensboro and six citizen plaintiffs seeks an injunction to stop a new state law that dramatically alters Greensboro City Council elections. Here’s what voters need to know to prepare for the coming election.
It is hard, even for the people serving on Greensboro City Council, to stay abreast of all the swirling election changes, so imagine the challenge to an ordinary voter.
That is part of the premise of the city of Greensboro’s lawsuit against the Guilford County Board of Elections, which the city filed Monday in an attempt to stop a new state law with significant impact on the city council’s composition, terms and election process.
The city council — with the exception of Councilman Tony Wilkins — is hoping that a judge will grant an injunction to prevent the election system overhaul. And they are seeking that injunction before filing to run in this year’s city council election begins on July 27, in order to prevent the new law from altering the race.
The new law
The new elections law passed by the state General Assembly — the equivalent of the US Congress on a state level — alters city council and the process used to elect members in several ways.
The most significant shift creates eight Greensboro City Council districts and eliminates all three at-large positions. In previous elections, the city was split into five districts, while three council members and the mayor were elected at-large — meaning citywide. A voter previously could pick a candidate in their district, a candidate for mayor, and three candidates at-large — a majority of the nine-member council. Under the new law, a voter could select a candidate in their district and a candidate for mayor.
The law also makes another major change to the way Greensboro residents vote. In the past, a primary election was held in October if there were more than double the number of candidates for a given seat. For example, with only one mayor, if three people filed to run for the office, it forced a primary. But if only two candidates sought the position, the mayor’s race would not appear on a primary ballot. The primary, when necessary, would cut the number of candidates for all city council seats to double the number available. All races — the five districts, three at-large seats and the mayor — appeared on the general election ballot in November under the previous arrangement.
Under the new law, Greensboro moves to a runoff system. The election is still nonpartisan, meaning that party affiliation is not listed next to candidates. But instead of a primary election in October and a general election in November, the new law “is almost an inverse process of that,” Guilford County Elections Director Charlie Collicutt said.
Now, all candidates for a given office will appear on the ballot for the Oct. 6 general election. If any candidate receives a majority of the vote — meaning 50 percent plus 1 vote — they win the race outright, Collicutt said. For example, if 1,000 people vote in a district race, a candidate who receives 501 votes or more wins. If nobody reaches a majority in a given race, the top two candidates will face off in the November runoff election.
The same system is in place in Raleigh and Cary, Collicutt said, and it could mean candidates could potentially avoid paying for two elections if they receive enough votes in October.
In the last two Greensboro City Council elections, only 8 and 11 percent of registered voters participated in the October primary, while that number was closer to 20 percent for both November general elections, he said. The fact that the new law shifts the importance to the October vote when half the people typically show up is part of the complaint in the city’s lawsuit against the new system.
The law makes other changes as well — now the mayor will only vote in the case of a tie and on certain personnel decisions rather than on every item like other city council members. And it doubles the length of the terms for councilmembers, including the mayor, from two years to four.
The new law also removes the ability for the city or its residents to revert to the previous system, placing that power in the hands of the NC General Assembly. That’s one element that the city is suing over, according to the lawsuit.
Candidate filing had been scheduled to begin on July 7 and would have run for two weeks until July 17 at noon. Now filing to run for office begins on July 27 at noon, and the two-week period ends Aug. 7 at noon, Collicutt said.
The new law does not impact early voting, absentee voting or voter registration. The deadline to register is Sept. 11 — under current law, North Carolina no longer offers same-day registration, Collicutt emphasized — and early voting runs from Sept. 24 through Oct. 3. Absentee ballots must be postmarked by the Oct. 6 Election Day and received no later than three days after the election, Collicutt said. A recent state omnibus election reform law, which is currently being challenged in federal court in Winston-Salem (see page 9), does not require an ID to vote until Jan. 1, 2016, so there will be no impact on this city council election.
Voters’ polling places will remain the same, Collicutt said.
The state statute does not require that the Guilford County Board of Elections to mail out notifications on redistricting, but if the new district-system remains in place, Collicutt said his office will voluntarily mail information to voters to keep them informed.
The city’s lawsuit, filed on Monday, argues that the new state law changing Greensboro’s elections is unconstitutional. Joined by six residents — including several prominent activists — the city argues that the law violates the city’s right to self-governance, destroys the right to a referendum on the changes and deprives the right to an equal vote by redrawing districts.
Even though the city council already had five districts, all of them were redrawn when the state created eight districts and eliminated at-large seats. In doing so, the lawsuit argues that the new districts’ population makeup deviates from one another by 8.25 percent as opposed to the more closely aligned 3.95 percent in the past.
The lawsuit argues that the districts are designed to disadvantage Democratic incumbents on council as well as Democratic voters based on party affiliation. It also states that the new Districts 1, 4 and 6 — three of the four new majority-minority districts — are over-populated, thereby diluting the value of each resident’s individual vote in comparison to other districts. In the new Districts 1 and 4, the lawsuit claims more than 72 percent of possible voters are black, while a large Latino population tips the balance of almost equal numbers of black and white voters in District 6.
The new districts “were drawn to overpopulate minority districts and to pit incumbents, including all four of the African-American incumbents on city council, against each other,” the lawsuit argues. The four black council members were drawn into two districts, forcing them to run against each other if they wish to remain on council.
The lawsuit challenges the new law on a series of other points, including the fact that it splits seven existing precincts when previously none were split and that it will create mass confusion among voters and candidates. It also repeatedly argues that changing to a runoff system with the general election on Oct. 6 rather than a primary is designed to limit voter turnout.
“Without immediate injunctive relief, the act’s unconstitutional scheme will take effect as candidates file for office and voters begin to consider candidates in the new, disproportionately drawn voting districts and the preparations begin for an October 2015 general election,” the lawsuit reads. “Once that election machinery gets underway, it will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for the city to correct the equal protection violations created by the act if this court ultimately finds, as it should, that the act is unconstitutional.”