Limited-voting revisited

Published 7:05 pm Saturday, December 1, 2012

A newly elected county leader is scheduled Monday to make good on a campaign promise by asking fellow county commissioners to consider changing the way they are elected.
Gary Brinn, a Republican who promised to work to bring an end to so-called “limited voting,” will ask the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners to form a study committee with the purpose of changing the method of electing members to the county board.
“It’s important to the people of Beaufort County,” Brinn said. “It’s going to be an uphill battle, but I’m going to the plate Monday night and start the process.”
Brinn joins the board Monday, as does former Beaufort County Board of Education Chairman Robert Belcher.
Robert Cayton, a Democrat from Edward who chose not to seek re-election, and Jay McRoy, a Republican from Chocowinity and who was defeated in the November election, leave the board Monday.
Incumbents Jerry Langley, a Democrat, and Hood Richardson, a Republican, will return to the board after emerging victorious from the Nov. 6 election.
The election of Belcher and Brinn and re-election of Langley and Richardson created a board of county leaders comprised exclusively of Washington residents or those who live in the Washington area.
“A lot of people in the county are dissatisfied,” including those who live in Aurora, Bath, Belhaven, Chocowinity and other parts of the county, and believe “their vote doesn’t count” because they do not have the numbers to successfully elect a representative to the board under the current voting plan, Brinn said.
He envisions a plan that would see some members of the county board elected from districts and others elected to at-large seats that would be subject to countywide voter approval.
That way, county voters would have the chance to choose at least two county commissioners every two years, he said.
The board’s other newcomer agreed that it’s time to end limited voting, but he stopped short of endorsing Brinn’s proposal, saying he would prefer to hear Brinn’s ideas before giving it his support.
“I do want limited voting to end, and I’m willing to listen to any proposal other than what we have now,” Belcher said. “I think the people out in the country have a legitimate gripe that they are not represented.”
“It doesn’t seem right to me that we have two commissioners who live off of River Road but no commissioner from Belhaven,” he said.
Beaufort County voters have used so-called “limited voting” to elect commissioners about 20 years following a 1991 court order from U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Howard. That order enforced an agreement between county leaders and a group of black residents over changes to the system of electing commissioners.
Under the old election system, the county board comprised five commissioners with each elected at-large by voters countywide.
But a lawsuit challenged that method of election, saying that it denied blacks representation on the board in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In discussions with their attorney at the time of the lawsuit, county leaders were given the choice of a system of electing board members from districts that would be drawn in a manner that would ensure the election of minorities to the board or limited voting.
They chose limited voting, in part, because electing commissioners from districts would have resulted in at least some incumbent members of the board facing each other in the next election, according to reports.
Just before inking a deal with the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the commissioners reportedly began to have second thoughts about limited voting and tried to back away from the deal. Howard’s ruling forced the board to accept the deal, according to reports.
Limited voting restricts voters to one choice each election, even though three or more seats may be on the ballot in a given election year. It gives minorities the chance to block vote, ensuring the election of at least one minority candidate each election.
But a growing number of people — including some minority leaders — have begun to criticize the voting plan in recent years, saying it makes it difficult for minorities to elect more than two members to the seven-member board and it makes it difficult for voters from more rural areas of the county to elect representatives to the board.
The discussion over the future of limited voting comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and, in particular, a section of that law that requires Beaufort and other counties in North Carolina to seek federal approval of any election changes.
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, any change to the method of electing county commissioners is subject to prior approval by the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court before it can be enacted, a process called “pre-clearance.”
A ruling on the case is expected by June 2013, and if Section 5 is overturned by the court, it could make changing the current limited voting plan easier for county leaders.