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Commissioners won’t take up legal battle to change limited voting

Since 1989, limited voting for Beaufort County Commissioners has been a topic of discussion — at times, a polarizing discussion. But commissioners, whether for or against the issue, resolved this week to not take on what would be a costly process to change how Beaufort County voters elect their commissioners.

Commissioner Ed Booth submitted a resolution about the issue at Monday night’s meeting of the Board of Commissioners, in response to recent legislation sponsored by Rep. Keith Kidwell, who represents Beaufort County in the North Carolina House. If passed, House Bill 481 would allow Beaufort County voters to put a limited voting referendum on the ballot if a petition containing signatures of 15% of all Beaufort County voters, or 5,000 voters — whichever is less — is submitted to the county Board of Elections.

Reversing the county voting process is not that easy, according to Commissioner Hood Richardson.

“In order to change how we vote in Beaufort County, it has to go to federal court,” Richardson said. “You’re going to have to deal with the Feds and not the state.”

Limited voting for Board of Commissioners seats was instituted in 1989 — the end result of a lawsuit filed by Rev. David Moore alleging the at-large elections held up until that point denied black voters the equal opportunity to vote for candidates of their choice.

“The people have never been happy with limited voting,” Kidwell said, when he filed the bill in March. “It’s something I’ve heard complaints about for the last 20 years. They have tried several times to get an initiative going to change it away from limited voting. The problem is until recently, the courts would have had to approve any change that we made.”

But to put another process in place would mean a great deal of time and money spent in federal court, according to Commissioner Gary Brinn.

Brinn, when first elected commissioner, created and sat on a committee to study the issue. After consulting with Beaufort County Board of Elections Director Kellie Hopkins, it quickly became clear there was no easy way out, he said.

“It was going to cost the county a whole lot of money,” Brinn said.

Booth’s resolution does not dismiss any effort to do away with limited voting; rather, it proposes that the state or another entity pick up the cost of any lawsuit filed in order to change it — the county would not be taking it on.

“I don’t have a problem if our delegation wants to change it,” Booth said. “I just don’t want to get the bill.”

Commissioner Jerry Langley had stronger words for the proposed legislation: “You go hire yourself an attorney, and you go to the Feds, and you file a lawsuit. If you feel that strongly about it, you get you an attorney, and file an injunction,” Langley said. “A lot of folks are upset with this because they can’t get rid of certain commissioners, and that’s just not the way you do business.”

The vote in favor of Booth’s resolution passed 7-0.

“I’m going to support that motion because I don’t want any chance of a liability and be dragged into a federal court,” said Commissioner Stan Deatherage.