A change to Wake County elections, driven by state legislators, drew a step closer to passage Tuesday. After more than two weeks below the radar, Senate Bill 181 reappeared before a state House committee with less than 24 hours’ notice.
Republican Sen. Chad Barefoot’s bill would redraw electoral district lines and create two new super-districts, each representing half the county, for the Wake County Board of Commissioners. Instead of casting ballots in each race, as they do now, voters would be limited to two races each.
The change likely would curtail the influence of Raleigh’s heavy Democratic presence in current countywide elections. The new lines would consolidate partisan voters in some districts, to a potential Republican advantage.
Rep. Paul Stam, a House leader, spoke in favor of the bill, which already has passed the Senate and won a favorable committee report Tuesday. It goes to a second reading on the House floor on Wednesday.
“At-large districts are bad policy,” Stam said, referring to Wake’s method of allowing all voters to have a say in every race.
Some local officials were hoping a divide between state legislators would slow the proposal.
“At this point, we’ve got to make our voices heard, and we’ve got to put ourselves in a position to start preparing for the inevitable,” said Brian Fitzsimmons, first chairman for Wake County Democrats.
Barefoot says he wants to ensure outlying and rural areas of the county have a seat at the board table. Raleigh has nearly half the county’s population, meaning its Democratic-leaning population has substantial influence over current races.
Four of seven Wake County commissioners live in Raleigh, and another just beyond. Otherwise, only Cary and Fuquay-Varina are home to representatives, out of Wake County’s dozen municipalities in total.
“In effect, what we have now is a second city council for the city of Raleigh,” said Ed Jones, chairman of the conservative Wake County Taxpayers Association, speaking in favor of the bill.
With a final vote at hand, some of the county’s more influential players spoke up. Harvey Schmitt, chief executive of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said a district-only system would divide the county.
“All commissioners will be focused on bringing home the bacon to their district,” Schmitt said. “Additionally, we are concerned that there has been very little community dialogue on this issue.”
The change would give Wake County a relatively rare type of government in the state. Only 13 of the state’s 100 counties have pure district systems, according to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners.
About 65 of 100 counties have all their commissioners run countywide races, including Wake. Each Wake commissioner lives in his or her respective district, but ran in a countywide race.
Commissioner James West suggested a hybrid system might work.
“I think we need some combination thereof,” he said. But he felt that Wake County had been targeted, arguing that the bill impinges on local control. The county has launched its own committee to talk about election reforms.
Commissioner Matt Calabria said the bill would split voters into camps: “This is part of a larger trend of fabrication of division among our people.”
Voters installed four new Wake County commissioners last year, dumping the GOP majority for an all-Democratic board. The Democrats won by an average margin of 11.3 percentage points.
The committee on Tuesday considered and rejected a number of amendments, including one that would ask Wake County voters if they wanted to change the system.
“It’s simple – give the people the choice,” said Rep. Rosa Gill, a Democrat.
Stam said the referendum would be in November 2016, delaying the new system until 2020 or later. He also implied that out-of-state money could improperly swing the referendum. Barefoot said that Raleigh’s “voting bloc” power would overpower a referendum.
Gill also proposed a different new district map, which she said would be more compact and logical than the districts in the proposal, which would split voting precincts and wrap themselves around the county in abstract-looking ways.
The amendment failed, with Stam calling it “lawsuit bait.” He argued that the county board districts are favorable because they follow the new Wake County Board of Education districts, which the legislature created in 2013 and become effective in 2016. Stam had not looked at the statistical effects of the new districts on elections, he said.
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 final decision also would apply to the proposed commissioner districts.