Election changes get look

By Emily Coakley
Published August 27th 2005 in The Herald Sun
HILLSBOROUGH -- How should the Orange County Commissioners be elected?

As the commissioners themselves continue to look at the issue, they can consider a variety of proposals, including dividing the county into five districts, splitting it into two districts and expanding the number of seats on the board. Some have suggested altering the system even more completely.

Driving the reconsideration of how the commissioners are elected is discontent from some residents of the northern part of the county who say they don't have a voice on their county board. While they know the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area -- with about 70 percent of the county's population -- always will be most influential, residents outside the urban areas say it's time they were heard, too.

The current consideration of the varying proposals comes after the commissioners were presented last year with a petition signed by more than 1,200 rural county residents seeking change. Since then, the campaign has been adopted by state Rep. Bill Faison, D-Orange, and Commissioners Chairman Moses Carey has put forward three options for changing the electoral system.

The commissioners have scheduled two public hearings on the issue. The second one will be Wednesday in the Battle Courtroom in Hillsborough.

At the first hearing this past week, Carey said the goal is to receive feedback on the different models and draw specific lines later.

A number of options

North Carolina counties have several different ways of choosing commissioners, from a purely at-large system, as in Orange County, to strictly district representation, and almost everywhere in between.

Some counties even have limited voting, said Gary Bartlett, executive director of the state Board of Elections. In limited voting, there may be three seats open, but some voters can only vote on candidates for one seat. Limited voting has been the result of judicial intervention, though, Bartlett said.

Under Carey's option one, commissioner candidates would be nominated in five districts around the county. In the primary, voters could only vote for the nominees in their district, and the nominees must live in the district in which they run. In the general election in November, voters could vote for candidates outside their district.

The board size would stay at five seats, and district lines would be drawn to include the residences of the five current commissioners. If this method were adopted and passed a voter referendum next year, it would be applied in the 2008 election.

In option two, the board would expand to seven commissioners, with five districts drawn to include the current commissioners' residences. The other two seats would be elected on an at-large basis. As in option one, voters could only vote on nominees within their district at the primary, but wouldn't be restricted to voting for their district candidates in the general election.

The at-large candidates would be nominated by a countywide vote. This option, if adopted, would take effect in 2008. At that time, two district seats and two at-large seats also would be up for election. With the at-large members, the candidate receiving the most votes in the general election would serve a four-year term; the candidate with the second-most votes would serve two years and run again in 2010, so the at-large districts are staggered.

Number three

The third option offered by Carey also calls for a five-commissioner board, but the county would be split into two districts: a northern district which elects two seats, and a southern district which has three seats. The northern district would contain the five northernmost townships in Orange County, while the southern district would be composed of Chapel Hill and Bingham townships.

Nominees chosen during the primary must live in and be nominated from their district. All the county's eligible voters would be able to vote for the candidates in the general election.

If adopted, this option also could be in place for the 2008 balloting. Elections also would be staggered, but under the proposal, the system of electing three commissioners one year and two another would be switched. According to the proposal, in next year's election, the commissioner receiving the fewest votes would serve a two-year term, seeking re-election in 2008 with the other two commissioners.

The same district map can be used for the options one and two. A map would be drawn within nine months of the commissioners selecting a model, according to a county memo.

But not everyone likes the proposals.

Faison, who has butted heads with the current commissioners over his push in the Legislature for a referendum on district representation, criticized the fact the districts weren't drawn as part of two of the current proposals.

"Any plan that's going to be considered has to satisfy the 'one-person, one-vote' rule of the Supreme Court," Faison said. "It doesn't have to be perfect, but it has to be close. I don't know how anyone can give feedback without the districts drawn. It's too vague. If you're only going to get one shot at it, you certainly don't want it to be in the dark."

But Commissioners Vice Chairman Barry Jacobs said he wonders if the reasons behind asking for change have more to do with politics than other considerations.

"I think some people have an agenda that has nothing to do with democracy," Jacobs said.

And at the first public hearing, three of five speakers raised the idea of changing the system to reflect principles of proportional representation.

Another proposal

Proportional representation is a voting system not very common in the United States. It can take many forms, and those who mentioned it did not present a detailed proposal.

Artie Franklin, a Chapel Hill resident, cited Cambridge, Mass., as an example of proportional representation in its municipal elections.

Under the Cambridge system, residents can vote for as many candidates as they want, but they must rank each candidate in order of preference. A candidate's name on the ballot would have several numbered ovals beside it.

When ballots are counted, they are sorted by the voter's first choice initially. If Candidate A hits the quota -- for example, 2,001 votes -- additional ballots with Candidate A as the first choice are redistributed, according to the second choice marked on the ballot.

Candidates in Cambridge with fewer than 50 votes after the first count are eliminated, and their ballots redistributed to the second choice candidate marked on the ballots. After each round of counting, the extra ballots are moved as candidates reach the quota or are eliminated. Candidates with the fewest votes at the end of each round of counting are eliminated.

But changing the system so much in North Carolina would require the state Legislature to pass a bill permitting the county to do it, said Geof Gledhill, the county attorney.

"There tend to be more diverse types of voting methods for cities and towns than for commissioners," Gledhill said. "I don't believe there are any proportional or cumulative voting systems operating in North Carolina."

Slim and none

Bartlett, of the state Board of Elections, confirmed that no jurisdiction in North Carolina uses any sort of proportional representation for elections. The system is used in Europe and other parts of the world, though, he said.

Faison said the chances of getting such a bill through the Legislature are "somewhere between awfully remote and nonexistent."

"It is not viable in any way," Faison said of proportional representation at the county level.

Jacobs, though, said he had asked for more information about proportional representation at a commissioners' May work session.

"If, in fact, some of those proportional proposals are plausible, we probably need to do more investigation," he said Friday. "There's no reason not to be creative as long as we respect the one-person, one-vote, and that everyone gets to vote for a majority of the board of commissioners."