Election change could be put to vote

Mar. 06, 2013 @ 05:45 PM

The City Council’s request to change High Point’s election system has hit a roadblock.
State lawmakers who represent Guilford County have let it be known that they are reluctant to introduce a bill that would change city elections from even- to odd-numbered years and institute a primary, according to city officials.
The council voted 6-3 on Monday to seek the changes, which can’t take effect without approval of a local act by the North Carolina General Assembly.
City legal consultant Fred Baggett met with the local delegation Tuesday and reported in a memo to city officials that legislators won’t support a bill making the change because of the split council vote and the fact that the current even-year election cycle has only been in place five years.
Lawmakers might, however, support putting the odd year/primary system idea to a vote through a city-wide referendum, according to Baggett. The council would have to get the legislature to approve holding a vote. The city has until March 20 to submit a local bill to implement a referendum procedure.
“I have a concern myself about this being a relatively short time past an election which is rather historically significant, with our first African-American mayor (Bernita Sims) being elected and, also that there was a divided vote on the council for this,” said state Rep. John Faircloth, a High Point Republican who is chairman of the local delegation and a former City Council member. “With all of those concerns, the suggestion was made, perhaps it should be left to the voters to decide whether to make the change.”
Baggett said a referendum could be held any time or in conjuction with elections in May or November 2014. The change to the odd year/primary system could take effect for the 2015 election.
“I would support (a referendum) because I think any time we get voters’ input, it’s important,” said Councilman Jim Davis. “Everybody I’ve heard from was in favor of a primary.”
If the legislature allows a referendum, a bill enacting it would have to be cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act, Baggett said.
Council switched to even-numbered year elections, with no primaries, in 2008 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.
Sentiment has increased among the council and the general public for a return to primaries, which would narrow the number of candidates in each race to two for the November general election.
Currently, it takes only a plurality of votes to win a seat on council or for mayor, with no limit to the number of candidates that can be on the November ballot. In 2012, Sims was elected with about 33 percent of the vote in a five-person race that included two candidates who did not campaign but each garnered about 10 percent of the vote. Critics say the current system allows candidates who aren’t serious about serving in office to have undue influence on elections, to the point that the victor emerges without a mandate from voters.