Council moves toward election switches

Feb. 09, 2013 @ 04:46 PM

The City Council on Saturday voiced support for a proposal that would move elections for High Point offices back to odd-numbered years and implement primaries.
During its annual retreat, council voted unanimously to hold a public hearing March 4 on the proposed election cycle change, which would require approval by the North Carolina General Assembly. If council moves forward with the idea, a bill would have to be submitted in the legislature by mid-March for the change to take effect for the 2015 elections.
Council switched to even-numbered year elections several years ago to try to increase voter turnout, becoming one of the few municipalities in the state that doesn’t have off-year elections. It also did away with primaries, allowing an unlimited number of council and mayoral contenders to be on the ballot for each race. This method allows for the winner to be chosen by a plurality, instead of a majority, of votes
Bringing back primaries would narrow the field to two candidates in each race four weeks before the general election in November.
“I think it’s pretty cut-and-dried from the information I’m getting back, people want to see some type of primary or runoff,” said Councilman Britt Moore.
Council has also toyed with the idea of changing its term lengths from two to four years, but no decision was made Saturday on whether to pursue that option.
“What I’m hearing is, the primaries — we need to go back to that,” said Councilman Jim Davis. “Some (constituents) said they didn’t care about the four-year term, but they want to have a voice in it and have it put back on the ballot and let them decide.”
Council members and the mayor have served two-year terms since 2000, when city voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum that did away with four-year terms. There has been discussion about going back to the longer term, as some argue that two years is too short a cycle to get oriented to the workings of council, understand how the budget process works and put together any legislative achievements.
Any term-length change could be put to a vote again, and several council members said they would support letting the public weigh in on the change if the idea is pursued further.
Councilwoman Becky Smothers said that, to go back to odd-numbered year elections starting in 2015, the current terms of the council and mayor would have to be extended until that time, instead of expiring in 2014, as they are set to do now.
Mayor Bernita Sims said going back to off-year elections will mean much lower turnout at the polls.
“So, am I hearing correctly that we don’t care that 10 percent of the electorate votes for council? Because we’ve had 10 percent of the electorate determine who represents us,” she said.
Council members said residents who care about local elections will turn out to the polls in odd-numbered years.
“People have the right to vote and if they’re not making their own choice to go out and exercise their right, we have no control over voter turnout,” said Councilman Jay Wagner.
Council would have to switch back to odd-numbered year elections to have an October primary because of absentee-ballot constraints that preclude holding a primary that close to the general election in a even-numbered year.
The only way to have a primary in even-numbered years is to bring back partisan council and mayoral elections, which would allow for a May primary date.
Prior to the public hearing next month, the city will establish a public comment period on the proposed election method changes through a medium yet to be determined.
“I think we need to have more input from our citizens regarding what they think,” said Sims.