State legislators rewrote the rules for electing Wake County’s governing board on Wednesday, enacting a law that promises to shift the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans.
After a short debate, the changes for electing Wake commissioners passed by a 66-47 margin and, because it is a local bill, became law. The Senate approved the bill last month.
Some local elected leaders jeered the law, saying that Republicans in state government have interfered with local politics in order to rig the capital county’s government. The law’s backers, meanwhile, say that they aimed to give small towns a voice in a government they saw dominated by big-city Raleigh.
The new system of voting will significantly alter local politics when it goes into effect, according to an analysis by The News & Observer. In fact, Republicans would hold a majority on the board today had the law been in place during the 2014 election. The results of The N&O analysis were similar to a state legislative staff analysis that used the 2010 election results.
“If you look at the bill, you can tell there’s partisan motivation,” Rep. Rosa Gill, a Wake County Democrat, said.
The new lines concentrate Republican and Democratic voters in different districts, creating a potential advantage for Republicans.
Take last November’s elections as an example. Democrats swept their races by wide margins, securing a unanimous board.
Had the votes been counted under the new system, though, the results would be quite different: Republican candidates likely would have carried five out of the nine new districts, The News & Observer found.
Despite the fact that about 30,000 more voters chose Democrats than Republicans, the Republican candidates would have ended Election Day as the dominant party in Wake County government.
The issue had attracted some concern, including from Gov. Pat McCrory. In March, McCrory warned legislators not to get too involved with local politics.
“We have some legislators who also want to be mayor and city councilmen,” he told an auditorium full of mayors and city council members. “… If someone wants to change the form of government in one of your cities, then go run for City Council, for mayor.”
New base districts
The map above shows how Wake County’s most recent elections would have played out under the seven new base districts. Blue shading represents districts where Democrats held the majority, while red represents Republican-heavy areas.
The new rules
Senate Bill 181, sponsored by Sen. Chad Barefoot, enacts two major changes in electing Wake County commissioners.
First, the law creates two new districts, each covering about half the county, for a total of nine.
Second, the law gets rid of at-large voting. Currently, every voter has a say in every commissioner race. Under the new system, voters will only cast ballots in the districts where they live.
The changes will play out in several ways over the next few years. For one, the law would force three of the current Democratic commissioners to race against each other. Caroline Sullivan, John Burns and Sig Hutchinson all would be swept together into District 2 when the law is fully implemented in 2018.
More broadly, the new districts nullify some of the Democrats’ overwhelming power in the county’s urban core. That’s part of its stated mission.
The law’s proponents argue that Raleigh and Cary’s huge populations unduly affect the county-wide election systems, with their residents accounting for 60 percent of the county’s population. The third-largest municipality, Apex, makes up just 4 percent of the county.
“The purpose of this bill is to increase representation and geographic diversity on the board of commissioners,” Barefoot, who represents Franklin and eastern Wake Counties, said at a Tuesday committee meeting.
He noted that nine of the county’s 12 municipalities don’t have a representative on the board. Four live in Raleigh, one just outside it, one in Cary and one in Fuquay-Varina. “The current archaic system was developed over 30 years ago, before I was even born,” Barefoot said.
Rep. Paul Stam, a Republican from Apex, argued that the new district system would be cheaper for candidates to run under.
The law stacks up tens of thousands of Democratic voters in a few districts, guaranteeing huge margins but fewer victories. For example, a Democratic candidate could win 80 percent of the ballots in District 4, covering southeast Raleigh, Garner and Knightdale, or 72 percent of District 2, covering central Raleigh.
Republican votes, meanwhile, are spread more evenly between the races that the party has a shot at winning, making for smaller margins but more victories, The News & Observer found.
In crafting the bill, Stam said, the Republican sponsors wanted to match the new school districts that the legislature created in 2013. Stam said he, Barefoot and Rep. Gary Pendleton had crafted the proposal.
The new districts already are the subject of a legal battle, which sprang from the plan to institute them for the Wake County Board of Education. A federal judge dismissed a challenge of the new maps last year. However, a federal appeals court has agreed to hear an appeal by the plaintiff, the Durham-based Southern Coalition For Social Justice. The results could affect the commissioners races too.
Democrats proposed amendments to the law on Tuesday and Wednesday, including an alternate map said to be more compact than the twisting and turning new district shapes.
Gill also noted her plan would avoid splitting up towns. The newly enacted lines run through the center of several towns, including Apex, Wake Forest and Garner. The changes were soundly rejected.
The map above shows how Wake County’s most recent elections would have played out under the two new super-districts. Blue shading represents District A, which Democrats won by a wide margin, while red represents the Republican-held District B.
The News & Observer used previous election results to show how the new district system would change local elections. The test case was the November 2014 election, when four Republicans faced off against four Democrats in county-wide races for seats on the board.
The analysis composites together each party’s candidates, tracking how many votes the Republicans and Democrats got on average in each section, or precinct, of the county. Then the analysis divided the votes for each party into the new district areas.
The results show the political preferences of each new district; the research follows the mathematical process used by state legislative staff in order to predict the effects of redistricting. Similar results appeared in the staff’s analysis of a 2010 U.S. Senate race.
There is little chance now that the districts will be undone. McCrory does not have veto power over local bills. His communications staff did not immediately reply to a request for comment late Wednesday afternoon.
And while Wake County is moving to create its own committee on elections reform, the new law generally forbids more changes to the districts until the 2020 Census results are published.
The change is an early challenge for the new Democratic majority on the board. “I’m really disappointed that this is what I end up spending my time doing, rather than answering phone calls for constituents,” Commissioner John Burns said on Tuesday.
Commissioner Matt Calabria feels he can win again under the new system – but the numbers show he’ll face a challenge.
The first changes go into effect in 2016, when the county holds the first elections in its new super-districts.
In that same year, candidates in the current Districts 4, 5 and 6 will run for two-year terms, rather than the usual four years.
Finally, in 2018, all seven of the current districts will be redrawn to the new format, and the at-large system will be abolished.