New election districts for the Wake County school board became law Wednesday with passage of a legislative overhaul of how and when votes are cast in North Carolina’s largest school system.
Under Senate Bill 325, the boundaries adopted by the former Republican board majority in 2011 are discarded in favor of new lines drawn up by GOP legislative staffers. The bill also moves the contests to the November ballots of presidential and midterm election years and allows citizens to cast votes for two choices among the candidates — one from the voter’s district of residence and another from one of two new regional seats.
The bill, approved 33-15 by the Senate Wednesday, passed the House Monday. The measure doesn’t require Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature because it only affects Wake, so it immediately became law.
Passage of the law took place largely along party lines, with Republicans predicting the changes will increase voter turnout and give voters more say in who serves on the nine-member school board.
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“Folks in my district want to have more than one voice on the school board,” Rep. Tom Murry, a Morrisville Republican, said on Monday. “They’ve only got one now.”
But Democrats argued the changes are an attempt to help Republicans regain the majority on the school board. Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, said the new districts lines are “gerrymandered,” pointing to one district that runs from northwest Raleigh to Garner.
“This bill is nothing more than a political effort to rejigger the districts to favor Republican candidates for school board,” Stein said Wednesday.
Earlier in the week, Republicans rejected Democratic attempts to slow down the bill, including a proposal that would have required that Wake voters approve the changes in a November 2014 referendum.
The Republican majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners supported the bill although it fell short of their request to let individual voters pick five of the nine board seats. The Democratic majority on the school board, which won running in the current districts, opposed the bill.
Wake is one of several school districts in which the legislature is trying to make election changes to this session, from redrawing lines to moving elections to making the contests partisan.
The changes will go into effect in Wake in 2016. This fall’s school board elections will still take place under the current boundaries but members will serve shortened three-year terms instead of the regular four-year circle. The bill also extends the terms of the five board members elected in 2011 by a year.
Starting in 2016:
• Two board seats become regional positions, each representing half the county.
• The remaining seven board seats will operate under new lines.
• Individual voters will pick two seats, up from the current total of one.
• The elections will move from October of odd-numbered years to November of even-numbered years.
• Candidates would only need a plurality of votes to win, eliminating the need for runoff elections.
All nine board seats will be on the 2016 ballot. The two new regional board members would only serve two-year terms with the seats back on the 2018 ballot for the regular four-year term.