WAXHAW — The Waxhaw Board of Commissioners (BOC) voted 4-1 to approve a resolution which would extend their terms on town council — some by one year and others by three years.
The resolution suggests that the mayor and commissioners should be elected every four years beginning in 2022 and commissioners who were elected in 2017 should serve until 2022, and that the Mayor and Commissioners who were elected in 2019 should serve until 2024.
The resolution will be sent to the local delegation in the North Carolina General Assembly who may introduce it as a bill to be voted on.
At their regular meeting on Tuesday evening, council was ready to approve the consent agenda before Councilman Pedro Morey stepped in and asked that the second item on the agenda be moved to the new business portion of the meeting. The second item was a resolution to extend the council member’s terms.
A consent agenda includes items that do not need discussion by council members. They are approved in one sweeping motion before a council moves on to other items that require discussion and/or a vote. Therefore, had Morey not asked for the resolution to be moved to the new business portion of the meeting, the resolution would neither have been discussed by council members, nor voted on. It would have been approved as part of the consent agenda.
Waxhaw Town Manager Jeffrey Wells presented the resolution to council members. He explained that voter turnout in odd year elections in the town are usually low. By extending council members’ term limits so they are voted in even years would potentially increase voter turnout as well as be cheaper for the town. His report on the resolution states “some municipalities have worked to change their municipal election cycle from odd years to even years to sync up with the general election cycle.” Wells did not specify which municipalities he referenced.
According to Robert P. Joyce, “In very recent years there has been a modest movement — a few North Carolina municipalities have changed — toward holding municipal elections in even-numbered years along with all the others.” In 2015 Archdale, Dobson, Elkin, Pilot Mountain and Winston-Salem held elections in even numbered years.
Joyce is a Charles Edwin Hinsdale Professor of Public Law and Government at UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Government.
Joyce, in a blog post, wrote that changing from odd to even year elections would be cheaper for municipalities because “A municipality must reimburse its county for the expense that the county board of elections incurs in conducting the municipality’s elections. In theory that expense might be less if the municipality’s elections are at the same time as all others. That theory may have some validity since the statute [GS 163-284] requires only that municipalities reimburse ‘the actual cost involved.’ The actual cost of an odd-year municipal-only election is undoubtedly higher than the actual cost of adding municipal races to a ballot with other races in an even-year election.”
Wells, in his report, included data from 2015 to 2020 on voter turnout in Waxhaw. In the 2015 municipal election, there were 980 total voters (197 Democrats, 448 Republicans, 300 Unaffiliated and five Libertarians). Conversely, in the 2016 general election (a presidential election), there were 6,648 total voters (1,575 Democrats, 2,833 Republicans, 2,202 Unaffiliated and 35 Libertarians).
There were 3,155 total voters in the 2020 primary election (1,167 Democrats, 971 Republicans, 1,006 Unaffiliated and ten Libertarians). Later, in the fall during the general election, there were 11,170 total voters (2,658 Democrats, 4,334 Republicans, 4,092 Unaffiliated and 76 Libertarians).
The resolution states the average percentage of Waxhaw voters who voted in 2016, 2018 and 2020 general elections was 53%, compared to 9.5% voters who voted in 2015, 2017 and 2019 municipal elections.
Morey said he thought the idea of holding even-year elections was a great idea; however, given how divisive the country has become over politics, he said the timing is off. He said the resolution may be a “hard sell” to residents. Too, he said the resolution should be voted on by the next cycle of commissioners who could then vote for the resolution to be placed on a ballot for Waxhaw residents to either vote for or against. Morey was the only commissioner who voted against the resolution.
Mayor Ron Pappas said the resolution is simply an effort to increase voter turnout in the town. “I think everybody on the Board is confident that they’d rather see the election be had by 20,000 people rather than 2,000 people. I think that would be an important thing to observe,” he said.
Commissioner Tracy Wesolek said there is never a good time to make a change like this to a town charter, but she said this year is better than any other because she reasoned that COVID pandemic regulations would reduce voter turnout even more. She noted that it would be more difficult for residents to meet candidates and the possibility of debates and forums would be in question.
Newly appointed Commissioner Jason Hall said based on the data presented in Wells’ report, it would be beneficial for the town to have “more people provide their input into who the leadership is going to be for Waxhaw.”
Mayor Pro-Tem Brenda McMillon provided an illustration showing an election in odd number years is like having residents who live in the Millbridge neighborhood be the only voters in the town. The illustration showed it would be like the 1,500 residents in Millbridge making decisions for the entire Waxhaw population.
The resolution suggests beginning in 2022, elections in the Town of Waxhaw will be held in even numbered years. If approved in the General Assembly, the resolution will require an amendment to the Town Charter.