Change to limited voting may face legal hurdles

Published 6:47 pm Friday, August 2, 2019

Changing the way Beaufort County elects its board of commissioners could face legal challenges if a bill in the General Assembly becomes law.

Currently, House Bill 481, which would allow voters in Beaufort County to petition for changes to the way commissioners are elected, is in the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate. There it joins a backlog of 530 other bills waiting for committee discussion.

If referred favorable by the committee, it would then go before the full Senate for a vote. If the bill passes the Senate, it would then become state law. As a local bill, it would not require the governor’s signature.

Under the bill, a petition bearing the signatures of 15% of Beaufort County voters would then allow proposed changes to go on the ballot. But that’s where things may be complicated by a federal ruling established in the 1991 case of Moore v. Beaufort County.

Under that ruling, the court sided with Rev. David Moore, who alleged that an at-large system of voting prevented African-American candidates from winning seats on the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners. Any changes to the voting would have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, according to court documents.

“Under the facts of this case, there would have to be a hearing in federal court and a motion filed to set all this out to the federal court that North Carolina has a new law,” Beaufort County Attorney David Francisco said.

N.C. Representative Keith Kidwell, who sponsored H.B. 481, holds that that there is a possibility that a U.S. Supreme Court decision may have removed the requirement to have changes approved by the DOJ. In the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the section of the Voting Rights Act used to determine federal preclearance for election changes was unconstitutional and can no longer be used until Congress enacts a new statute.

“If we don’t test it, it will never change,” Kidwell said of limited voting.

The question of who would be responsible for going to court for this purpose was a topic of conversation for county commissioners during the group’s May meeting. Despite differing opinions on limited voting, the group voted unanimously to not take up any legal fight to change the system.

“Our board has made the comment that whatever happens, they haven’t taken a position on it one way or the other, but they have said that they are not going to spend any county dollars on any kind of lawsuit related to it,” said Beaufort County Manager Brian Alligood. “They don’t want to be drawn into any of that. … The county would simply say ‘We are abiding by a federal judgment.’”

In 2015, a committee of the board of commissioners, made up of Frankie Waters, Ron Buzzeo and Gary Brinn, looked into the possibility of having a local bill drafted that would have changed the voting method. According to Waters, state representatives said they would only file a bill if there was unanimous support from the board of commissioners. Now, the topic has come up again.

“There’s two versions of this,” Waters said. “One version is that if the state passes it, you’re home free. The second version is that the federal case is going to trump the state bill, so you’re going to end up with a suit. We really don’t want to go to court and spend the county’s money.”

Ultimately, there are a lot of ‘ifs, ands or buts’ in making any significant changes to the way commissioners are elected. The first, and possibly biggest ‘if’ is getting H.B. 481 passed in the N.C. Senate. If that does happen, chances are those seeking to make changes may have to spend some time in court.

“I think that it’s going to be fraught with some litigation,” Francisco said. “… As far as changing our voting situation in Beaufort County, it’s, at a minimum, a gray area.”