District voting for the county

The Chapel Hill Herald reports on the second of two public hearings about establishing some kind of geographic districts for electing the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

One option calls for five commissioner seats to be nominated from districts. Voters countywide would then vote on the candidates in the general election.

Another option has five commissioner seats nominated from districts in the primary, with two additional at-large seats. Voters would elect candidates in the general election.

The final option would split the county into a northern and southern district. The northern district would have two seats; the southern district would have three. Nominations would be district-based, with voters choosing candidates from both districts in the general election.
- The Chapel Hill Herald, 9/1/05

The current system of partisan primaries is clearly frustrating to the one-third of Orange County voters who are registered Republicans. And there are often complaints of Chapel Hill and Carrboro dominating the county vote, but I think this may not resolve that as some people would like. It's really disappointing to see that some of the more innovative solutions available are not being offered. (See Wikipedia for a comprehensive list of voting systems, including proportional representations and cumulative voting.)

In most other communities, folks might be satisfied with "majority rules" (hey, it works for the president... not) but here in Orange County I think we value the voices of minorities more. So the question is how can we give voice to geographic or ideological minorities while still remaining democratic?



Not mentioned by any of the current commissioners (and three of them were on the Board in 1993), is that a county committee appointed by the County Commissioners in 1993 concluded that Orange County's method of electing commissioners was not fair and proposed two specific solutions.

One was cumulative voting. This is an elegant solution to the problem. A voter simply "spends" his or her votes in any manner. For instance, with three commissioner slots open, the voter could vote for each of three candidates, vote twice for one and once for another, or put all three votes behind one candidate.

This system ensures that significant minority groups get a representative on the Board. Interestingly, the minority group may be a different one from previous elections based on whatever new issues the county is facing. No district lines need to be drawn and redrawn. The race issue that Moses Carey uses to blunt significant revamping of the system is addressed, because racial groups would actually have more ballot power with cumulative voting.

The Democratic Party issue still remains as the elephant in the room. Behind a lot of the smoke from the status quo defenders is the fact that partisan nature of the county commission elections appears to bolster the local Democratic Party as well as delivering thousands of unearned votes to the Democratic Party candidates in the form of straight-ticket voting by folks who don't even know who is running for commissioner. The fact is that local municipal and school board elections work fine without party affiliation.

Moses Carey's tepid proposal bears more resmblance to the current sytem than any other option ever put forth and is designed to keep things as close to the staus quo as possible if any change is made. It may also be designed to be so lacklustre that people just don't even put any effort into meaningful change.

The primary question is: why wouldn't Orange County leaders want the most democratic system that we can implement?

I went to the hearing last week to make three points:

1) cumulative voting empowers all minorities and allows constituencies to self-organize regardless of geography or other problematic distinctions;

2) move to nonpartisan to open up the process beyond the Democratic Party primary (actually, I believe it would be better yet to have many parties but that would be a much more complicated proposition);

3) increase BOCC size to seven with cumulative voting to allow better chance for minority constituencies to pass the threshold for election.

I agree with Mark that the proposals on the table are weak.

I also went to the meeting last week and asked the BOCC to consider three modifications: super-precincts to help both rural and student voters, use of an alternative voting system (cummulative, IRV, range, borda, proportional) that would elevate the voices of minority constituencies and opening the candidate pool by converting to non-partisan elections.

The current proposal is more than weak, it actually is counter-productive to expanding representation. If we're going to modify voting procedures, let's be bold and do it right.

they should just start with NON-PARTISAN primaries where the top 7-10 advance to the general elections.

Try that first.. very simple no bickering over district lines etc... then moderate candidates who appeal to both constituencies can get elected.

I don't see how electing a george bush and john kerry type to the same board will advance things much.


Can that be done by the OCC or does the State Legislature have to do it?

Mr. Black has a good question. I would like to add my own as well. Have these non-district representation models stood the test of our courts? If I recall back in 1992 when I served on the commissioner's committee on representation, some form of district representation could be done locally, but outside of that would require a special bill passed in the General Assembly. I don't think that has changed so when someone speak of a different election system other then districts then there is another hurdle to jump over. I would hope everyone understands that.

It would take legislative action. But there is also some sort of state program that is supposed to be looking into alternative voting methods so now could be the time.

cumulative voting, proportional voting, IRV, all would require legislative approval. Change to district system (whether just in primary or in primary and general) can be done by commissioners approval and a referendum.

Change to nonpartisan elections also would require legislative approval.

I think that we need to increase the size of the board. I also think we need to pursue a pure district system, even breaking down Chapel Hill township into individual districts. Local government decision very often center around individual pieces of land or streets etc. It seems that the best informed governmemt body would include at least one member who is likely to be familiar with any given project. Right now, northern Orange is almost entirely unrepresented, yet the BOCC makes a lot of decisions affecting their neighborhoods. I'd like to see six districts and one at large position, since there is an arguement that minority voices are lost in a totally "districted" plan.


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