The Orange County Commissioners discussed possible changes to the way in which they are elected at their meeting Tuesday, and they asked staff members to start looking into different voting practices.
Currently, commissioners are elected to fill seven seats: five seats split between two districts and two seats elected at large, meaning they represent the entirety of the county and not a specific district. District one encompasses Chapel Hill-Carrboro and has three seats, while district two has two seats and includes the rest of Orange County.
“The concern has come up both among the county commissioners and in the community about the fairness of our elections,” Commissioner Renee Price said.
Price said the complaints come mainly from Republicans who feel it’s not possible to get elected to the board due to the large number of Democrats in Chapel Hill-Carrboro.
“Some people feel that a Republican could not win, but that’s totally untrue,” she said. “We’ve had Republicans that have won other elections.”
Commissioner Mark Marcoplos said rural voters usually feel disenfranchised because they lack the population and political clout of the more urban Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. But he said he’s heard fewer complaints under the current system than he did under the previous system. Before 2006, the board was made up of five at large members.
“There was a lot of sentiment constantly on so many issues when the rural people felt like they were getting steamrolled by the urban voters,” Marcoplos said. “Now with our system now, we’ve got the opportunity to elect two people from district two. So a lot of people feel like that’s an improvement."
The board discussed a few potential changes. One would make the election based on districts, allowing voters to vote only for commissioners from their district in both the primary and general elections. Currently, voters choose district candidates during the primary election and then vote for all candidates in the general election.
Another change proposed by Marcoplos would involve a proportional electoral system, like those found in Europe and other parts of the US.
“I suggested cumulative voting because it could actually make a difference,” he said.
In cumulative voting, voters are given as many votes as there are candidates in the election. They are allowed to assign the votes however they choose, such as giving one candidate all their votes or splitting them among several candidates.
Any change to the election system would not go into effect until 2020. If the board approved a new plan, it would then be voted upon by constituents during the 2018 election.
Choosing a proportional system of voting would require permission from the N.C. General Assembly, something Price would like to avoid.
“We don’t want to open that door,” she said.
Not all commissioners are in favor of making changes to the process.
“(It’s) not a good idea. I think the current system — no system is perfect — the system is working well,” Commissioner Barry Jacobs said. “We have a good balance between people who take into consideration specific geographic interest and balance that with the overall wellbeing of the county."
Jacobs said he would be surprised if the board ultimately decides to make a change.
"I don’t think anyone is disenfranchised,” he said.
Commissioner Penny Rich said the proposed changes may or may not happen. Rich said she’s open to hearing arguments from all sides.
“I think the goal, of course, is always to be fair,” Rich said. “I mean, we like living in a democracy, and we like to hear people’s opinions and we want people to feel like they have the opportunity to vote and have a voice.”
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