The state Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill changing Wake County commissioner districts, changes Democrats argued are a gerrymander that will ensure GOP majorities on the local board.
The Senate voted 31-16 along party lines after an extended debate and after Republicans used a parliamentary maneuver to bury an amendment that would have brought the new election boundaries to Wake voters for approval.
The Senate must vote again on the bill before it moves to the state House for consideration.
Both Republican Sen. Chad Barefoot, sponsor of Senate Bill 181, and Democrats opposing the plan wrapped their arguments around the principle of local representation. Democrats said the legislature should not impose its will on a county to reshape its board. Barefoot said the new redistricting plan would make sure that Wake’s small towns have more say in who represents them.
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Candidates for the current seven-member board live in districts, but are elected in a countywide vote. Currently, five of the seven members live in Raleigh.
“The most recent election proves that the current system we have in Wake County ignores our small towns, and most importantly, ignores the will of the people,” Barefoot said.
Barefoot’s bill would redraw district lines and create two new super-districts, each with a commissioner representing half of the county. Instead of casting ballots in every race, voters would be limited to choosing a representative from their district and whichever super-district they live in.
The change likely would limit the influence of Raleigh’s heavy Democratic presence in current countywide elections.
The legislature in the past four years has drawn new districts for several local boards. The district map Barefoot proposes for Wake commissioners uses the same boundaries the legislature crafted for the Wake school board in 2013.
Democrats swept the Wake commissioner races in November, turning out four Republican incumbents. The redistricting plan would give Republican candidates an advantage in most of the new districts, according to a legislative staff analysis.
Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, said the legislature is tampering with a system that has worked well. Republicans have controlled the Wake board for 12 of the last 20 years, he said, and Democrats have been in the majority for the other eight years.
“Running countywide serves to moderate the commissioners of both parties,” he said.
Since 2011, the Republican-controlled legislature has drawn new districts for Guilford and Buncombe counties. The Senate is currently considering a bill for redrawn Greensboro City Council districts.
Sen. Dan Blue, the chamber’s minority leader and a Raleigh Democrat, said Wake should have some input into its own redistricting.
The bill “chips away at this fundamental idea that so many of us are wedded to,” Blue said, “this total idea of what democracy is, what representative democracy is.”
Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, said he heard many of the same arguments about Buncombe redistricting, and quoted a freshman Democratic House member saying that the districts worked well, even though the county didn’t ask for them.
“Let’s get down to it,” Apodaca said. “We’re talking rural vs. city. As we grow, we see what the cities do, they take over everything.”