State Politics

GOP bill would change voting districts for Wake commission

A bill filed Wednesday would change the way the Wake County Board of Commissioners is elected, resulting in each voter only being able to cast votes for two members instead of being able now to decide on every seat.

Republicans said the bill would end “outrageously expensive” countywide campaigns and better represents Wake’s small towns. But Democrats immediately objected to the bill as a power grab launched after last fall’s elections knocked the GOP out of control of the Wake Board of Commissioners.

Under Senate Bill 181 filed by Sen. Chad Barefoot, the seven-member Wake County Board of Commissioners would be changed to a nine-member board, using the maps adopted in 2013 by Republican legislators for the Wake County school board. Instead of the current practice of all seven commissioners running countywide, the bill would have voters pick the person in the district they live in and in one of two new districts that would each represent half the county.

In a press release, Barefoot, a Republican from Wake Forest, said countywide elections financially limit who can run. He said countywide elections are the results of an “archaic system developed over 30 years ago” when Wake County was less than a third of its current population of 1 million.

“I think it’s a gross demonstration of politics in its worst way,” said state Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat. “We have elections so that people have their voices heard.”

But Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican, said the proposal is long overdue. Stam said he plans to lead the effort to get the bill passed in the House.

“It’s too big a county” for commissioners to run countywide, Stam said. “It’s been decades since we increased the size of the commission.”

The bill comes after Democrats swept last fall’s elections to gain a 7-0 majority on the Wake Board of Commissioners. Voter registration statistics have indicated the new lines could create a 5-4 Republican majority.

James West, chairman of the Wake commissioners, said he wanted to know more about the bill’s impact.

Barefoot said the bill would increase geographic diversity and ensure every Wake County voter has a voice. He said that five of the seven commissioners live within a 15-mile radius of Raleigh and that 75 percent of the towns in Wake don’t have a representative on the commission.

“I am filing this to bill to give my constituents – and ALL Wake County residents – a much-needed voice within their county government,” Barefoot said in the release.

Rep. Darren Jackson – a Democrat who represents a rural swath of eastern Wake County – said he’d like to see more representation for his district at the county level. But he said the timing of the proposal is wrong.

“What this looks like is that you lost an election and you decided to change the rules,” he said.

The school board election lines that would be the basis of the new maps for commissioners are the subject of a lawsuit under review by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The justices are weighing a lower court’s ruling that the maps are constitutional.

Democrats said Barefoot’s proposal is similar to one sparking controversy in Greensboro, where Republican Sen. Trudy Wade has filed a bill to change the way City Council members are elected.

“The Republicans clearly have power in the General Assembly and they are choosing to use their state power to try to dominate control at local levels, when the will of the local voters has not been to elect Republicans,” Stein said.

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