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Legal Eagles: Will Municipal Elections Change to Even-Numbered Years? 

By Kim Hibbard, NCLM General Counsel

In the waning days of the 2016 legislative session, we fielded calls from local officials concerned that the General Assembly seemed poised to make a radical change to the municipal elections schedule, converting it from odd- to even-numbered years. While no actual change was made this session, the issue remains alive and the conversation will continue. Municipal officials should take heed and be prepared to weigh in as a study committee holds further discussions on the topic.

Since the passage of uniform statutes governing municipal elections in 1971, municipal elections have been held in odd-numbered years, on an opposite schedule from the county, statewide, and federal elections that are held in even years. Ninety-nine percent of all cities and towns still adhere to the odd-year schedule. (A small handful of municipalities hold their elections in even years under individual charter provisions passed by the General Assembly.)

This session a change to the election schedule was addressed in Senate Bill 667 – Elections Omnibus Revisions. SB 667 passed the Senate in its original form as an insurance bill, but it is common practice as the session winds down for one chamber to replace a bill that has passed the other chamber with entirely different substantive provisions, to expedite its passage as adjournment looms. In this case, the House converted SB 667 into a vehicle for various election issues and returned it to the Senate for concurrence. The Senate concurred and the bill was ratified on the last day of the session.

Most of the bill deals with assorted items on canvassing, ballots, and representation of the state in the event of a challenge to the validity of a local act. The key provision on municipal elections appears in Section 5, in a short paragraph expressing the intent of the General Assembly "to provide for even-numbered year municipal elections, effective with the 2020 election cycle." Notwithstanding the statement of intent, however, neither SB 667 nor any other legislation from the session makes the necessary amendments to municipal election statutes to actually implement such a change.

Instead, the bill directs the legislature’s Joint Legislative Elections Oversight Committee to study the options to implement the change and recommend "any legislation it deems advisable" to the 2017 General Assembly. This leaves the door open for municipal officials to make the case as to why such a change is or is not advisable.

From a practical and policy perspective, there are pros and cons to consider on both sides of the debate. Legislators supporting a change argued that voter turnout tends to be lower for stand-alone municipal elections and that streamlining by holding elections together might result in cost savings. On the other hand, municipal officials tell us that there is value in having a focus solely on city and town elections in a given year, without the concern that those races will be lost at the end of a long ballot where interest is dominated by federal or state candidates. In addition, most municipal elections are non-partisan and a separate election cycle allows them to remain more removed from partisan politics.

From the League’s perspective, this should ultimately be a local decision, and any legislation should be informed by dialogue with local officials. At this year’s Advocacy Goals Conference, held in conjunction with the League’s annual conference in October, our membership will have the opportunity to adopt a policy position on this and other important matters. We urge you to make your municipality’s voice heard by participating in the goals process, discussing with your local legislators, and standing ready to engage with the study committee when the time comes.