The city of Fayetteville has filed emergency paperwork with the N.C. Court of Appeals to block printing of local election ballots. Officials are raising concerns about a referendum that would change the way the city elects its governing board.
Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Jim Ammons ruled on Sept. 1 in favor of petitioners seeking a change in the Fayetteville City Council’s structure. Ammons determined that the petitioners had met legal requirements to place their “Vote Yes Fayetteville” measure on the November ballot.
It would replace Fayetteville’s current system of nine council districts. The number of district seats would drop to five, while four council members would be elected in at-large citywide elections.
“A local board of elections should not be forced to print ballots that are invalid. Yet that is precisely what the trial court’s decision mandates, and in the absence of a temporary stay and writ of supersedeas, that is precisely what will occur,” wrote attorney Karen McDonald, who represents the city and its council members.
The city is seeking a temporary stay of Ammons’ order, along with legal “writs” that would guarantee an Appeals Court review of the case.
“The underlying dispute arose when the Cumberland County Board of Elections confirmed to the Fayetteville city council that one of the statutory requirements for the ‘Vote Yes Fayetteville’ petition was not met,” McDonald wrote. “A valid initiative petition must meet certain statutory requirements. First and foremost, it must be registered with the relevant board of elections.”
“The General Assembly made this requirement explicit, requiring that any initiative petition ‘shall be registered,’” McDonald added. “Once registered, a one-year clock begins, during which the petition sponsor must obtain the requisite number of authorized signatures — here, at least 5,000. A petition becomes void and of no further effect one year after the notice of its circulation is registered, and ‘no election or referendum shall thereafter be called or held pursuant to or based upon any such void petition.’”
“Here, as the Board of Elections confirmed, a notice of circulation for the petition at issue was never registered with the Cumberland County Board of Elections,” the city’s brief continued. “So the petition sponsors never started the one-year statutory clock to obtain signatures. Because the city council can only call a special election ‘[u]pon receipt of a valid initiative petition,’ they voted against adding the ‘Vote Yes Fayetteville’ referendum to the November 2022 ballot. Indeed, under the unambiguous requirements set forth by the General Assembly, the petition was invalid.”
The city takes issue with Ammons’ ruling. “The trial court viewed things differently. Faced with the same unambiguous registration requirement, the trial court carved out an exception: It determined that because ‘there is always a little gray in the law,’ so long as the petition complied with some of the statutory requirements that the General Assembly explicitly required, it was good enough to pass statutory muster,” McDonald wrote.
Ammons ordered the Cumberland County elections board to include the “Vote Yes Fayetteville” referendum on the general election ballot. That includes ballots for early voting, which must be available this Friday, according to the city’s legal filing.
“Fast-tracking the referendum onto November’s ballot does not provide Plaintiffs with a palpable benefit, nor is it required by law,” McDonald wrote. “Nevertheless, Fayetteville’s voters will soon head to the ballot box to vote for something that may ultimately mean nothing.”
The city has asked the Appeals Court to place the case on a shortened timeline. That includes setting Thursday as a deadline to respond to the city’s motions.
If the Appeals Court rules in favor of Fayetteville city leaders after Friday, some voters might be required to receive “replacement ballots,” according to city officials’ legal filing.