Another take on how we elect commissioners
Editor's Desk

By Mark Schultz
Published June 24th 2006 in Chapel Hill News

Does anyone really think electing our county commissioners by district will satisfy rural residents who have felt outgunned by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro voting majority?

The Orange County Board of Commissioners is considering putting a measure before the voters that would change how the board is elected.

Instead of the current five-member board, with all members elected at large, the board would get seven members and some would have to run from either a rural or more urban district. The rest, one or two depending on the proposal, would remain at-large.

The clamor for district elections is not new. Rural residents have been asking for a change for more than a decade. If anyone needs proof that the urban-rural divide remains, just look at last year's referendum on establishing a special district tax for the county schools. The idea was to give the county system a funding boost like the city schools have, and the proposal was modest. The tax could have started at a penny per $100 valuation and would have been capped at 10 cents. Rural voters rejected it 4 to 1.

But what if, instead of carving the county into districts, we had a system that encouraged groups that shared values to work together to elect commissioners?

What if, instead of everyone electing what might turn out to be just a token commissioner, we had a system that allowed voters to elect candidates who ran on issues that united the electorate, instead of dividing it?

What if we had a system like, say, Amarillo, Texas, has?

Amarillo, with a population 16 percent Latino and 6 percent black, had long had conventional, winner-take-all school board elections. And because of that the school district's white majority had a lock on the school board.

In 2000 Amarillo, empowered by enabling legislation signed by then-Gov. George Bush, switched to a form of elections called "cumulative voting."

It's not that radical, and long-time Orange County residents may even have heard of it. A group that looked at how we elect our commissioners recommended it back in the early 1990s.

Under cumulative voting, each voter gets to cast as many ballots as there are open seats. But, and here's the trick, you can cast more than one vote per candidate. So say there are three seats open -- you could give one candidate three votes, or one candidate two votes and another one, or you could do like we do now: give three candidates one vote each.

What this does, says Jack Santucci, of the nonprofit Fair Vote: The Center for Voting and Democracy, is let people "plump" their votes on their preferred candidates. No election system is perfect, he said in a phone interview last week, but cumulative voting at least gives minority candidates -- be they racial, political or geographic -- a shot.

In Amarillo, the largest jurisdiction using cumulative voting according to Fair Vote, the results were immediate. After black and Hispanic candidates failed 10 times to win a seat on the school board between 1980 and 1996, the school system switched to cumulative voting for the 2000 election, and voters elected a black candidate and a Latina candidate. Two years later a second Latina joined the board.

Is cumulative voting better than districts? Santucci says yes.

When you create districts, "what you've done is cut the electorate up into discrete units, and the incentive is to campaign to that unit."

Instead of a candidate trying to pull together a coalition of groups, a candidate inevitably narrows his or her pitch to the home crowd. "What you're gonna do now is harden that divide," he says.

It may be too late to stop the district proposal. And it's uncertain the legislature would even allow Orange County to try cumulative or another alternative method of electing its county board.

But in a county that prides itself on innovation, isn't it worth taking a look?