Council approves election changes

Mar. 04, 2013 @ 08:19 PM

Big changes are coming to the way High Point voters elect their City Council and mayor.
The council on Monday voted to switch to odd-numbered year elections and institute a primary. The change must be approved by the North Carolina General Assembly. City staff will begin the process of submitting a bill for legislators’ consideration later this month. If a local act is approved, as expected, the change would take effect in 2015.
That means the current council, elected in 2012, would serve three instead of two years to accommodate the change. Monday’s action does not affect the length of future council terms, which will remain two years, except for the one-time extension.
If the legislation is approved, a primary will be held in all city races in September or October, to narrow the field of candidates to two in each race for the general election in November.
Monday’s vote was 6-3 in favor of the change, with Mayor Bernita Sims and council members Foster Douglas and Jeff Golden opposed to the switch.
Council debated the issue at length and voted on multiple options before approving a motion by Councilwoman Judy Mendenhall to make the changes. Council switched to even-numbered year elections, with no primaries, several years ago to try to increase voter turnout. High Point and Archdale are currently the only two municipalities in the state that don’t have off-year elections. Councilwoman Becky Smothers said another goal was to try to save money by holding city elections in even-numbered years but “we didn’t save money. We actually spend more by going to even years.”
Council members said turnout may have increased slightly, but a sizable number of residents apparently did not vote for municipal offices, which were listed below national and state offices on the ballot.
“I know, for a lot of us, we have heard from the commmunity at large the interest in a primary election,” Mendenhall said.
Council voted down a motion from Smothers that would have implemented a primary in even-numbered years, which would be held in May, with the filing period opening in February. That would differ from an odd-numbered year cycle, when filing opens in July.
“I just think it’s too much to ask of people who are serving on this council to file in February and spend, essentially, nine months of every 24 months that you serve running for office,” said Councilman Jay Wagner. “I don’t like having that long an election season.”
Sims said she saw little evidence that the public wants High Point to return to primaries, based on the results of public hearings on the topic and other feedback given to the city. She said she opposed returning to odd-numbered years, because that could mean woefully low turnout of only about 10 percent.
“I am, again, thinking that, in a sense that it does disenfranchise voters who do come out in an even year to vote,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what drives people to the polls. What matters is, they go and they vote. And I believe that, in our community, it is important that more than 10 percent of our population elect our elected leadership.”
Regardless of turnout, instituting a primary would have a major impact on elections. With no limit to the number of candidates that can be on the November ballot in the current system, some have been elected to city office with nowhere near 50 percent of the vote.
“If we’re all sitting up here without a majority of the vote, what message is that sending?” said Wagner.