The way Orange County voters elect their commissioners could change if plans to create more equity for political-minority – typically Republican – voters advance.
The Orange County Board of Commissioners discussed multiple options Tuesday but generally favored changes that would not require state approval. Voters would have to approve any changes, with the earliest possible countywide referendum in 2018.
The commissioners asked for more information about district representation, nonpartisan elections and cumulative voting, which gives voters a number of votes to cast for one candidate or a combination of candidates.
The legislature would have to authorize cumulative voting, County Attorney John Roberts said.
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The voting population hasn’t changed enough to require redistricting, county staff said, meaning any changes would be based on the 2010 Census. The board asked staff to compare those numbers with more recent population estimates.
The current system, established in 2006, elects three commissioners to District 1, which covers Chapel Hill, Carrboro and the southeastern corner of the county, and two commissioners to District 2, covering the rest of the county. Two additional members serve at-large.
Only voters who live in a district can nominate a candidate in their district’s primary. Voters countywide choose at-large nominees in the primary and elect commissioners from all three districts in the general election.
The system was created to give rural voters a stronger voice but hasn’t quelled concerns that urban voters in Chapel Hill and Carrboro still control elections.
Commissioner Mark Marcoplos, who has long supported a more fair representation system, supports cumulative voting.
“When I think about the way we elect our commissioners right now, there’s a large number of people in the county who have no chance of having their vote counted and, frankly, that’s Republicans – they’re just never going to have a commissioner elected and never have, and it’s a very frustrating situation,” he said.
I dispute that a Republican can’t get elected in Orange County.
Orange County Commissioner Barry Jacobs
It’s difficult to see how letting only district voters nominate and elect their commissioners would change anything, Marcoplos added.
“It would not change anything as far as the power structure as it exists now, or the representation as it exists now,” Commissioner Earl McKee said.
“What it would change is the perception that in District 2 (for example), the district nominates, but the countywide election is what elects,” he said. “And you’re absolutely right (that) a Republican candidate in Orange County cannot win the countywide election. Whether or not they can win a district election, I don’t know.”
Commissioner Barry Jacobs disagreed with that assessment. He also opposed creating more districts, which he said could exacerbate “subtle divides.”
“I dispute that a Republican can’t get elected in Orange County,” he said. “Extreme Republicans can’t get elected in Orange County – that’s pretty much all there was – but there are people on the school boards and the town councils who are Republicans, and they get elected. Some get elected year after year.”