Under the Dome

Bill could strengthen Republicans in Wake County elections

A proposal to change the elections for Wake County’s governing board could concentrate Democrats in some districts and Republicans in others, to possible Republican advantage, according to a News & Observer analysis of previous election results.

Republican Sen. Chad Barefoot’s bill, bound for the Senate floor on Wednesday, would redraw district lines and create two new super-districts, each representing half the county. Instead of casting ballots in every district race, voters would be limited to their districts of residence and one super-district. The change likely would curtail the influence of Raleigh’s heavy Democratic presence in current countywide elections.

To understand the impact of the changes, the analysis tracked the performance of the Republican U.S. Senate candidate, Richard Burr, in the 2010 elections. Burr wasn’t running for a seat on the Board of Commissioners, of course, but his high profile likely made him a useful weather vane for local political preference.

Under the current districts, Burr won in six of seven Board of Commissioners districts by an average of 7.6 percentage points in 2010, the News & Observer found. He won the county itself by about 1 percentage point.

Under the proposed system, Burr would have taken five of nine districts by an average of 18.3 percentage points, according to legislative staff, who did a separate analysis. In other words, Burr would have had bigger, safer margins in a majority of the commissioner races.

“It really seems like you’re going to end up with four Republicans who are going to win, and a fifth at large,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, at a meeting of the Senate Redistricting Committee.

Barefoot, representing parts of Wake and Franklin counties, contends that the bill is meant to guarantee outlying communities a place at the table.

Currently, five of seven Wake County commissioners are from Raleigh. Each commissioner lives in his or her respective district, but was elected in a countywide race.

Voters installed four new commissioners last year, dumping the Republican majority for an all-Democratic board. The Democrats won by an average margin of 11.3 percentage points.

To Barefoot, one of those wins is a sign the system is broken: The countywide method gave the District 2 seat to Matt Calabria, of Fuquay-Varina, even though he lost that district’s vote, as Barefoot claimed in a written release.

“The most recent election proves the current system ignores our small towns, and most importantly ignores the will of the people,” Barefoot said. Calabria said later that the districts already are “arbitrarily drawn,” and that Barefoot had revealed his “real motivation” to be animus against the current commissioners.

Some Democrats argue that countywide elections guarantee voters a say in more races, holding commissioners more broadly accountable. Others say they’re open to change, but oppose the measure’s quick pace through the legislature.

“... Not a single person who has risen to tell you that they feel unrepresented by me has bothered to contact me,” Commissioner John Burns said after residents’ comments at a Tuesday committee meeting.

The proposed districts follow the new Wake County Board of Education election lines set by the state legislature in 2013.

“We decided to just use the foundation of the school board maps, which have already been voted on by this body, which have already been cleared by the courts,” Barefoot told the committee.

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.

S.B. 181 goes for a second reading at 2 p.m. Wednesday, alongside a similar bill that would alter the Greensboro City Council and its elections. Democratic representatives from the Triad, meanwhile, have proposed a bill that would require local voter approval of such changes.

Proposed base districts

Proposed “super” districts