Voting splits Dems

Published 1:37 am Sunday, April 17, 2011

Jerry Langley, chairman of the Beaufort County commissioners, speaks at the county Democrats’ convention Saturday morning in Washington. (WDN Photo/Jonathan Clayborne)

Newly elected Chairman Surry Everett presided over a schism Saturday.

Not long after voting unanimously to elect Everett chairman, delegates to the Beaufort County Democratic Party’s convention parted ways over whether they should investigate moving away from limited voting.

Limited voting is the method used to elect Beaufort County commissioners.

The method, enforced by federal court order, allows each voter to mark a ballot for just one commissioner candidate, though three or more seats may be open in a given election year.

The voting style became the county’s reality roughly 20 years ago after a voting-rights lawsuit filed by black voters.

The lawsuit demonstrated racial polarization had prevented black candidates from being elected as commissioners.

Broaching the issue, delegate Charles Boyette, former mayor of Belhaven, said rural, eastern areas of the county have no representation on the county board, and that some people want to vote for more than one commissioner candidate.

“The current method has served its purpose,” Boyette told guests and conventioneers.

At present, the commissioners are elected on an at-large basis, not from districts.

A proposal to seek conversion to a seven-district, single-member system has been floated, Boyette pointed out.

The proposal grew out of a series of meetings held years ago by a subcommittee formed by the county commissioners, but the subcommittee was disbanded and no real action was taken on this or any other draft plan.

In recent years, the now-serving commissioners have shown no signs of interest in tackling limited voting.

But the seven-member district system has been endorsed by the Rev. David Moore, a former county commissioner and lead plaintiff in the old voting-rights lawsuit.

Before Boyette spoke, Everett announced he’d form a committee to look into the feasibility of changing limited voting.

“Because if we don’t start talking about this, nothing is going to happen,” he said.

The subject proved controversial from the start.

Jerry Langley, chairman of the Beaufort County commissioners, rose to remind the audience that a lack of minority representation brought on limited voting.

He indicated federal law still applies in this case, and that stabs at drawing commissioners into different territories would produce “ugly districts” č in essence, convoluted districts that would divide the county.

“Basically what you’re after you’re not going to be able to get,” Langley said.

In response, Everett pledged he wouldn’t back any voting plan that doesn’t account for the current level of minority representation on the board.

“I am not going to go back,” Everett stated. “I’m only going to go forward.”

Langley and Commissioner Ed Booth, also in attendance at the convention, are the board’s two black members.

Booth and Langley have said the in-place system has accomplished what it was supposed to č getting blacks elected to a board that was closed to them at one time.

Perhaps the most outspoken critic of seeing the party take up this issue was Alice Mills Sadler, the party chairwoman who voluntarily ceded her position just before Everett was elected Saturday.

Sadler warned the party not to make the replacement of limited voting part of its platform in 2012.

“I think you’re naive,” she said, referring to the notion that Dems could turn this into a winning issue.

And Sadler disagreed with the idea that the sitting commissioners aren’t accountable to everyone in the county.

“They’ve got to be elected by everybody, not just their neighbors or people in their district,” she said.

Delegate Josie Hookway took the contrary view, saying she lives in Bath and never sees a county commissioner in that town.

“We need to have commissioners that know our problems,” Hookway asserted.

By contrast, Booth observed, “We only vote for one governor. They don’t come to Beaufort County until it’s election time.”

Delegate Florence Lodge tried to broker peace and call for unity as the debate drew to a close.

“The Democrats are hurting their own selves because of what they do,” Lodge said, adding some members of the party register with the party then vote Republican.

“We’re never going to get anywhere,” she said. “We’re not together.”

Later, Lodge put in a bid for more positive newspaper coverage of the good things she said Democrats are doing.