Limited-voting question splits candidates

Published 10:54 pm Friday, October 15, 2010

Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This concludes coverage of the Washington Daily News candidates forum.
The Beaufort County commissioner candidates were asked if they’d do away with limited voting.
Half preferred the “do-nothing” option, while the others spoke for moving to a district system, or espoused unspecified alterations to the county’s method of electing commissioners.
During the Washington Daily News candidates forum Tuesday night, all six commissioner candidates were asked the following question: “Do you think the commissioners should pursue changing the method by which they are elected? If so, why? If not, why not?”
Under the limited-voting method, a voter is allowed to vote for one commissioner candidate, though three, four or more may be on the ballot.
Limited voting was imposed by a federal judge roughly two decades ago after a group of Beaufort County residents sued the county. The lawsuit was filed because no black person had been elected to the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners under the at-large voting system then in effect.
On Tuesday, the candidates were evenly divided on the question of whether the county should pursue using a different election method, which experts say would have to pass muster with the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires federal “preclearance” of any changes in election methods used in certain North Carolina counties.
Incumbent Republican Stan Deatherage pointed out he chaired the now-defunct, commissioner-appointed Fair Elections Citizens’ Task Force in 2002.
“We were tasked with the responsibility of figuring out what we could do to change the way the commissioners are elected,” Deatherage said. “I went into that hoping that we could make a difference.”
The commissioners discovered it would take a lot of time and money to change the way they are elected, Deatherage related.
“We have plans that we’ve come up with, and these plans are good plans,” he said. “The problem is we have not had the time or the money, dealing with some of the issues we’ve had to deal with, to go to that.”
He added, “This is on the back burner. It can be moved to the front, but don’t hold your hopes up. It may not happen as quickly as you think or would like.”
Democratic incumbent Ed Booth was unequivocal in his response to the question.
“First thing I’m going to do is answer your question, and my answer is, ‘No,’” Booth stated. “I wouldn’t change it.”
No black or Republican candidate had been elected to the county board before the implementation of limited voting, he said.
“The way you elect county commissioners has been fair to everybody,” Booth asserted.
Incumbent Republican Al Klemm said that, presently, the board is comprised of six members from the Washington area, and one from Aurora.
“Also, you can presently be elected with less than 50 percent of the vote,” Klemm continued. “In fact, you can get elected with as little as 10 percent of the vote and be one of the top three, top four vote-getters when it comes to the election. I personally don’t want to elect anyone to office that doesn’t get 50 percent of the vote. That’s my preference. And I would like to see representation from all over the county.”
Klemm said he favors transitioning to districts.
“The answer is, ‘Yes,’ it has to be changed, and don’t let anybody tell you it can’t (be) because it can,” said unaffiliated candidate Bertie Arnhols.
Arnhols said she would consult the Rev. David Moore, a former Democratic commissioner and one of the original plaintiffs in the voting-rights lawsuit.
Moore originally preferred limited voting, but recently came out in favor of districts.
“The voters I talk to want their own townships to have their own representative,” Arnhols said, “and I think that it’s up to us … to do whatever we have to do to make sure that happens.”
It comes down to representation, said Democrat Jerry Evans.
“To come up with districts — it’s easy to draw on the map, but when it’s all said and done it’s a toughie,” Evans commented.
People should take time to learn who their candidates really are, he said.
“We’ve got limited voting. I don’t see it changing for a while,” Evans concluded.
Democrat Sonya Shamseldin said she wants “representation all over the county.”
“Belhaven’s getting left out,” Shamseldin said, adding other communities also suffer neglect from county government.
In her opening statement, Shamseldin said she would “strive to look at the limited-voting process.”