Legislative proposals to change how local governing boards around the state are elected present an opportunity to examine alternatives that could better accomplish the goals lawmakers claim to be seeking.
Consider the proposal to change Wake County commissioner elections and enlarge the board from seven to nine members. Wake Republican Sen. Chad Barefoot contends the current system favors Raleigh’s urban voters over residents of outlying towns and rural areas.
The current board has seven commissioners who live in districts but are voted on countywide. Barefoot’s proposal (Senate Bill 181) would eliminate at-large representation and have each of seven districts elect its own commissioner. Two additional commissioners would be elected from two super districts, each covering half the county.
Using an exclusively geographic approach, proponents argue that residents of outlying areas would have a greater chance of being represented by someone closer to where they live. Barefoot and his Republican allies claim it would also reduce “outrageously expensive” countywide campaigns that disproportionately favor Raleigh candidates.
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Democrats, currently a majority on the board, counter that at-large representation fosters a broader governing perspective and greater cooperation among commissioners because all are accountable to all voters in the county.
We should not have to sacrifice a set of benefits
when one election approach conflicts with another. Other methods, such as cumulative voting, combine the best attributes of both district and at-large representation. Cumulative voting has been used by over 60 jurisdictions around the country, usually to assure representation for minorities under the federal Voting Rights Act.
The system could also provide representation for geographic and political minorities. Cumulative voting has been used in Alabama, Texas, New Mexico, South Dakota, Illinois and New York by dozens of local councils and school boards. It was used to elect the Illinois state legislature from 1870 to 1980 and is employed in corporate governance to give voice to minority shareholders.
Wake commissioners would continue to be elected countywide with cumulative voting. If seven commissioners were being elected, a voter would have seven votes that could be “cumulated” for one candidate or distributed equally among however many candidates a voter chooses: seven votes for one, 3.5 votes for two, 2.33 votes for three – or one vote for each of seven candidates.
Voters could use their votes to promote what matters to them most. If the priority is racial diversity, they could cumulate their votes to accomplish that. If it’s to assure a voice for suburban and rural residents, they could cumulate their votes for candidates from their geographic area. If a particular policy issue is important, they could cumulate their votes for candidates who campaign on that issue.
Cumulative voting would assure fair representation and diversity
without carving the county into separate election districts. Nomination districts would further enhance geographic representation. Voters within each district could nominate two candidates in the primary to run countywide in the general election. They could then cumulate their votes for a district nominee to gain geographic representation or give their votes to other candidates to accomplish different goals.
In a seven-member election using cumulative voting, a voter group constituting just over an eighth of the electorate can combine their votes and be assured of electing a preferred candidate. Thus, with Wake County’s nonwhite population of about 30 percent, racial minorities could expect to elect two and possibly three commissioners in a seven-member election if that were their priority.
And with candidates able to get more votes by targeting fewer voters and smaller geographic areas, there’s less need to blanket an area with advertising aimed at gaining name recognition.
Whether Republicans in the legislature sincerely desire to improve representation or simply want to remake local governments to their liking as many Democrats charge is yet to be known. At a minimum lawmakers should allow a more open and honest examination of all the alternatives before imposing any prescriptions.
Lee Mortimer of Durham is an election reform advocate and served on a General Assembly Election Laws Review Commission.