Elections should be free, fair, and regular.
Those principles are the basic standard for making sure that governments reflect the will of the people. For that reason, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (which represents national legislatures worldwide) states in the first principle of its Declaration on Criteria for Free and Fair Elections that governments can derive authority only from “free and fair elections held at regular intervals.”
Closer to home, Article 1, Section 9 of the North Carolina Constitution is titled “frequent elections” and states “for redress of grievances and for amending and strengthening the laws, elections shall be often held.”
We Americans regularly and vigorously debate what constitutes “free and fair” elections, as witnessed by our current wrangling over such issues as voter ID, online voter registration, and regulations of absentee-by-mail voting.
Americans hardly give the “regular” aspect of elections any thought, however. Perhaps it is because our elected officials, from the president to city council members, have set terms of office. Our election dates are also established by law, meaning that citizens can develop a rhythm for when to vote.
So we don’t think about the right to have our elections at “regular intervals.”
Until that right is threatened.
When President Donald Trump suggested that it might be a good idea to delay last November’s general election until Americans could “properly, securely, and safely” vote, leaders from both major parties roundly and appropriately derided him. House of Representatives Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy dismissed Trump’s suggestion, saying, “never in the history of the federal elections have we ever not held an election and we should go forward with our election.”
In short, we should hold our elections as scheduled unless there is a compelling reason for a delay.
For these reasons it is disappointing that the executive director for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, Karen Brinson Bell, has requested that the North Carolina General Assembly delay all of this year’s municipal elections. Municipalities need permission from the General Assembly to alter their election dates.
Brinson Bell has her reasons. The U.S. Census Bureau is behind schedule in producing the data some municipalities need to redraw city council districts and will likely not make that data available until August or September — long after the candidate filing period for those elections and, in some cases, after the elections themselves. If those municipalities do not delay their elections, they would have to conduct 2021 elections under old districts. Doing so could potentially violate the principle of equal representation if population shifts have caused some districts to be much larger than others.
The cure Brinson Bell proposed, however, is worse than the disease. Only about 60 municipalities use district elections, which require census data, but Brinson Bell called for delaying all of the over 500 municipal elections until 2022. She claimed that delaying all municipal elections would limit voter confusion that could occur if some municipalities delayed their election while others did not.
The minority of municipalities that use districts need to consider and balance voters’ right to regular elections with their right to equal representation. Some of those municipalities may wish to delay the 2021 elections to give themselves time to create more balanced maps, while others may believe that their citizens are better served by having their elections conducted at the regularly scheduled time.
For the vast majority of municipalities that do not have districts, however, there is no reason to deny their citizens their right to vote on the regularly scheduled date.
Fortunately, members of the General Assembly have come up with a better idea. Senate Bill 722 would allow those municipalities that have councils elected on a district basis the option of delaying their elections until 2022, but only if those changes are “necessary to conform with State and federal law.” Most municipalities would hold their elections at the regularly scheduled time. The Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee reviewed the bill and favorably reported it on May 19.
As with other rights, we often do not think about the right to regular elections until that right is threatened. It is good to know that members of the General Assembly are standing up for that right, even if the State Board of Elections is not.