Victorious candidates Tammi Thurm, Michelle Kennedy and Nancy Hoffmann (l-r) celebrate on election night in 2017. (file photo)

Every 10 years the US Census Bureau delivers population data to states and municipalities that is critical for ensuring equal representation in legislative bodies to adjust for population shifts.

There’s plenty of time for the NC General Assembly to redraw congressional and state legislative lines in time for the 2022 election, but with elections scheduled for 2021, major cities across the state, including Greensboro, Charlotte, Raleigh and Cary are in a bind.

Normally, the Census Bureau delivers the new population data in February and March of the year following the decennial census, but COVID-19 caused significant delays in operations this time. The bureau announced last week that the data will be delivered by Sept. 30.

That’s a problem, considering that by state statute, the filing period for cities with district seats up for election is July 26-Aug. 13.

“This is a subject of concern for a lot of people around the state,” Greensboro City Attorney Chuck Watts said.

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan suggested on Tuesday that municipal elections could be pushed back from the scheduled Nov. 2 date to allow cities time to redraw districts.

“I don’t think there’s any way for us to meet the normally scheduled election timeline,” she said. “There’s a big question on what a new timeline would look like. The League of Municipalities is looking at it closely.”

The North Carolina statute governing municipal redistricting after the federal decennial census requires any city that elects members on a district basis “to evaluate the existing district boundaries to determine whether it would be lawful to hold the next election without revising districts to correct population imbalances” as soon as possible after receiving the data.

The federal rule for balancing district populations allows for a variation of no more than 10 percent between the largest and smallest district, said Caroline Mackie, a lawyer with the Poyner Spruill law firm in Raleigh. The requirement falls under the “one-person-one-vote” principle in the Equal Protection Clause under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

Mackie, who presented at a seminar on redistricting for local government attorneys and GIS planners at the UNC School of Government last month, said North Carolina follows an even more stringent standard under the 2002 Stevenson v. Bartlett decision. The ruling set a requirement of no more than 5 percent deviation, plus or minus, from ideal district size. In a hypothetical municipality with a population of 100 and five districts, the ideal district population would be 20. In that case, no district could have a population less than 19 or more than 21.

Bob Joyce, a professor of public law and government at the School of Government, noted in an interview with TCB that the statute includes a provision allowing municipalities that do not complete redistricting three days before the opening of filing to reschedule the election. In that case, current officeholders would hold onto their positions until their successors could be elected. Under that scenario, the primary election would be held in March 2022, followed by a general election in November.

Alternately, the statute also includes a provision allowing municipalities that do not adopt redistricting changes three days before the opening of filing to hold the election “on the regular schedule using the current electoral districts.”

“I’m not personally aware of that ever happening,” Joyce said. “It does raise the specter of using districts that are unconstitutionally out of balance. A state statute can’t overrule a federal constitutional problem.”

Vaughan expressed skepticism toward the idea of going forward with city council elections with the current districts.

“We know where the majority of our [population] growth is; it hasn’t been uniform across the city,” she said. “It would seem to make sense that we would have to move our districts. Since we have four-year terms, we wouldn’t want to hold elections without redrawing the lines first.”

The new district maps are likely to help determine who runs for city council, based on candidates’ calculations on which races they have the best chance to prevail. Tony Wilkins, a former council member, is currently weighing whether to run in a district or at large. If he’s drawn into a district with Tammi Thurm, the incumbent in District 5 who defeated him by 10 points in 2017, he would be incentivized to run at large.

Both Joyce and Vaughan said they expect the General Assembly to pass special legislation to delay municipal elections to allow time for redistricting, considering that the census data will arrive late.

Vaughan also said she wants to take the map-drawing out of council members’ control. Previously, the process has been heavily politicized. In 2011, then-Council member Mary Rakestraw presented a plan that surgically removed the Lindley Park neighborhood from west-side District 4 and attached it through a narrow stretch of railroad track to southeastern District 1. Rakestraw could not explain where she got the map. It was narrowly approved, but after a public outcry council members voted to reconsider.

Vaughan said the council hasn’t taken a vote, but no one has expressed any objections.

“I suggested we have an independent body look at redistricting,” she said. “It seemed to meet with approval.”

This story previously reported that Durham is among the North Carolina cities affected by the delay in delivery of census population data. That is not correct. Durham is not subject to the same requirements as other North Carolina cities because Durham’s wards are only for residency with respect to council members and voters throughout the city can nominate and vote on candidates from any ward.

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