Wake County

Senator’s change to Wake County elections steams ahead

A Republican proposal to change Wake County elections steamed toward a vote in the state legislature on Monday, with arguments playing both on partisan divides and the political clash of Raleigh and smaller outlying towns.

To some proponents, Senate Bill 181 is a way for voters in the capital county’s suburbs and towns to have their say on the Board of Commissioners. Critics say the bill amounts to political overreach meant to keep Democrats from repeating their sweep of the board last election.

The law was proposed last week by GOP Sen. Chad Barefoot, who represents parts of Franklin and Wake counties. It would change some local races in 2016 and come into full effect in 2018.

Currently, Wake County is divided into seven districts in Board of Commissioners elections. A candidate must live in a district to run for its seat. However, voters may cast ballots in all of the board’s races, no matter where they live.

The new model would limit voters to their districts, but also allow them to vote in one of two new “super districts.” Supporters say that would reduce the influence of Raleigh, which constitutes nearly half the county’s population, on county politics. Currently, five of the seven Board of Commissioners members list Raleigh addresses; the other two are from Fuquay-Varina. All are Democrats.

“Each region of this county is unique. Wendell is certainly different than Morrisville,” said David Cozart, a financial planner involved in Republican politics, during a meeting of Wake County’s state delegation on Monday.

Critics of the proposal say that it’s moving too fast to be fair, with little notice or opportunity for input. The redrawing of the lines would force three of the current board members into one race come 2018.

“This legislation was a surprise to this board,” said James West, chairman of the Wake County commissioners. He said later the change would “fragment” the county. “The time-frame really limits us, in terms of making informed decision.”

The Wake Board of Commissioners on Monday passed a unanimous resolution opposing “any legislative changes” to their elections. The resolution noted that Wake County updated its districts in 2012 in response to the 2010 Census, receiving “no formal public opposition.”

Commissioner Betty Lou Ward argued that her board’s mix of genders and races show the current system produces diversity.

“We have always, always reached out to the people in the county, throughout the county,” she said.

“ ... It’s ridiculous for them to even consider this legislation.”

The new bill would align the Wake commissioner districts with the county’s new school board districts, which the state legislature created in 2013. The new districts would be introduced fully for the school board in 2016.

The county board of commissioners also would add the two new “super districts” that year, and convert to the new district shapes in 2018.

Local leaders wouldn’t be able to change the new districts again until the 2020 Census is complete.

Tom Benton, a member of the county school board, said the districts should be a county issue, not a state legislative matter.

Rep. Gale Adcock, a Cary Democrat, said the bill showed little signs of slowing.

“The only way to stop the bill is to vote it down,” she said.

A previous online version of this story incorrectly said that former Wake County Board of Commissioners member Joe Bryan attended the meeting and spoke. Bryan was not at the meeting.