Mayors and city council members across Walker County and in most municipalities of Alabama are getting an extra year on their current terms, as a new state act will now move municipal elections off the same year as presidential and county elections, starting in 2025.
In other words, mayors and councilmen elected in Walker County and elsewhere in 2020 will not run for office in 2024, as their term of office has been extended automatically - for one time only - from four years to five years to properly stagger the elections and the terms. Elections will be held in 2025 instead.
SB119 - which also makes some other changes in municipal election law - was passed in March by the Alabama Legislature to become Act 2021-157, after lobbying by the Alabama League of Municipalities. The votes in both chambers were close to unanimous, with Walker County legislators voting in favor of it.
News reports indicate Gov. Kay Ivey has signed the bill into law. Sen. Jabo Waggoner and Rep. Jim Hill sponsored the legislation.
General counsel Lorelei (Lori) Lein of the Alabama League of Municipalities said Monday that 97 percent of all the Alabama municipalities would be affected - essentially, all those which had municipal elections in 2020.
News reports say 11 cities in the state will not be affected by the legislation.
The issue has been looked at for a number of years.
"I've been with the League for 19 years, and it has certainly been something I've been interested in for a while," Lein said. "Every four years when I've been helping municipalities go through elections, I'm like, 'Oh, we've got to do something about this.'"
According to the new act, "The regular municipal elections in cities and towns shall be held on the fourth Tuesday in August 2025, and quadrennially thereafter, and, when necessary as provided in subsection (d) of Section 11-46-55, a second or runoff election shall be held on the fourth Tuesday following the regular election."
The municipal officers elected during the regular elections - meaning the mayor and council - will continue to take office on the first Monday in November after the elections.
The act was passed in the wake of the 2020 election year, which was crammed with state elections, county elections, a presidential election and the municipal elections, as well as runoffs. Added with new dates resulting from COVID-19, active players involved in the election were exhausted with a never-ending array of election deadlines - which made it hard to concentrate on any as the year moved on.
It is a way to not have voters not being under "election fatigue," Lein said.
"August of the election year comes around and they have already been through a couple (of elections). I think it would help with that," she said.
Officials have noted that county and presidential elections are state-run elections that are similar in nature, while the municipal elections are run by the cities and towns themselves - making it arguable natural to move the municipal elections in order to spread out the elections, as well as giving more attention to the city elections.
Lein said, "This year brought the issue to the forefront. It has always been an issue. There are very few election supply and machine suppliers in Alabama."
Discussion started years ago when the state moved to electronic tabulation machines, with only one or two companies able to supply for the elections, she said.
"So when you are piling on municipal elections, it could be upwards of 400-something municipalities," she said. "Usually it is around 300 that actually wind up holding an election.
"And all the machines and equipment needed are the same machines and equipment used for state and county elections. Practically speaking, it gets to be a real pinch - and the same with getting all those ballots prepared and printed. So this last year when you had all those elections piled on top of each other, it was really painful. But it has been an ongoing issue for a while now."
Another benefit of the change allows the public to give more attention to the municipal election process, the candidates who participate in them and the issues involved, she said.
To effectively stagger the elections and terms, officials had no choice to extend the current term by another year, as opposed to cutting it a year.
Lein said Alabama law, both constitutional and state statues, provides for four-year terms for mayors and council members. "So whenever you looking at shortening someone's statutory term, you might run into some issues. You don't have a problem when you extend them," she said.
The five-year term that will push the municipal elections to another schedule will only take place once, and will then involve four-year terms starting with the 2025 elections and continuing with balloting in 2029, and then so on.
Another problem that has developed over the year is that August elections are qualified in the first two weeks in July, Lein said.
"You only have a four- to six-week turnaround time between when they qualify to put their name on the ballot and when they actually run for office, and you have to start absentee in there. So it is a really narrow window," she said.
As a result, the new law changes allows qualifying to start in June instead of July in 2025. Lein said that will "give you more time for 300 municipalities to get their ballot printed, to make sure the candidates have filed their statements of economic interests - all the little things they need to check off to have their name on the ballot," Lein said. "It gives the clerk more time to confirm all that and get their ballots printed so they can do absentee balloting in a timely manner."
The act says election notices will be published on the second Tuesday in June or the first business day thereafter.
She noted that moving the timeframe will be helpful to the state Ethics Commission, which has thousands of economic interest statements from candidates to check on in a short amount of time, with deadlines to print ballots and absentees (including those for overseas military voters) also staring down at officials.
"Backing that up to June will give more time for the clerks and the Ethics Commission to confirm those filings," she said.
Another provision will also conform with state and county elections in Alabama, as the six-week runoff period was changed for state and county balloting to four weeks. "We switched that to four weeks (for municipal elections) so that we parallel state and county in that regard," she said.
Also, notification of certified election results will now be sent in the form of extra copies to the Secretary of State's Office and the League. Certified municipal results have been going to the probate judge only.
"There is no statewide centralized reporting of those," she said. "The Secretary of State's Office and, of course, we want to have the results as quick as we can in terms of our members. It is just a way to have the final results reported to us so that we can start compiling our directories and information that we have. Otherwise you have to go county by county, and you are depending on getting that information from the probate judge," dragging out the process for weeks on end.
Lein said while the League had many questions in the beginning from municipalities and legislators about the proposal, it encountered no real objections in the end from the cities or from legislators. The proposal became law in 17 legislative days.
"We're really proud of that," she said.
Some high-level discussion about the act will be held at the League's upcoming convention in May, but real education on it will begin with normal training for the 2025 elections, as early as 2024, she said.