What limits Tyrrell voters in commissioner and school board elections

Published 10:30 pm Thursday, February 6, 2020

In June of 1993 twenty-four black Tyrrell residents complained in United States District Court that the Tyrrell County Board of Commissioners, Board of Education, and Board of Elections were discriminating against them on account of race by abridging their voting rights through violation of the United States Constitution and federal election statutes.

The first complainant named was George R. Rowsom, owner of a funeral home and furniture store, and mayor of Columbia 1974-79; thus the action was titled Rowsom vs. Tyrrell.

The voting process complained of, which was state law,  allowed each voter to cast a number of votes equal to the number of members to be elected to the Board of Commissioners or the Board of Education, with voters casting one vote for each candidate of their choice. Ballots marked with fewer than the maximum allowable votes were counted.

Members of the boards were chosen county-wide and at-large. Each board had five members then and now.

In September 1993 all parties and their attorneys met behind closed doors in the Columbia High School cafeteria.

Plaintiffs (the black citizens) wanted voting districts to be established, with at least two of the five districts containing a majority of black voters. This tend to ensure that 40% of members of each board were black, corresponding roughly to the county’s racial composition.

Defendants (the commissioners and school board) favored continuation of at-large representation on grounds that, under a district plan, voters could only vote for candidates residing within their district, that some candidates elected under that method would view themselves as representing only their district, and that, because of the scarcity of population within each proposed district, a relatively few voters would determine the outcome of each election.

The parties agreed that night to a limited-voting compromise and asked the United States District Court to implement it. On March 28, 1994, the Court entered a Consent Decree, effective immediately, touching the following points:

  1. The Board of Commissioners shall continue to consist of five members elected for staggered, four-year terms in partisan elections. Each elector may vote for only one candidate, regardless of the number of candidates in the primary or general election, and there is to be no run-off primary. The candidates receiving the most votes shall be elected until the seats are filled. A similar procedure was established for the election of members of the Board of Education, which is non-partisan and has no primary.
  2. The same procedures were to be followed in succeeding elections, and plaintiffs were given 18 months following the 1996 elections to apply to the Court for modifications “if the plan is not operating to provide black citizens an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.”

The elections for Board of Commissioners and Board of Education in 1994 and every two years thereafter were conducted in compliance with the Consent Decree. A black candidate was elected in every election in which a black candidate was on the ballot. Plaintiffs have not applied to the Court for modification of the 1994 Order.

The Court Decree instituted what is called limited or one-shot voting, which increases the probability of a unified minority electing a candidate of its choice on the premise that electors outside the unified minority will tend to scatter their votes among all candidates.

While the limited voting method seems to have been more satisfactory to black citizens than the previous method, many citizens have complained that their voting rights are being restricted because they are allowed to cast only one vote in multiple-seat elections, a right they could exercise before the Court Decree was issued.

Since the Decree was implemented the Board of Commissioners has supported bills introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly that would give the county the option of implementing cumulative voting in multiple-seat elections.

The most recent attempt at such legislation was introduced in 1997 by Representative Bill Culpepper of Chowan, whose district included Tyrrell County. The bill proposed that each elector may cast up to the number of votes equal to the number of members to be elected and may distribute those votes in any combination, including all votes for one candidate.

An example of cumulative voting is when three board members are to be elected from among five or six candidates. Each voter may cast up to three votes in any combination; that is, three votes for one candidate, two for one and one for another, or one vote for each of three candidates. Fewer than three votes may be cast, but not more than three.

Representative Culpepper’s bill was to become effective upon approval of its provisions by the General Assembly and the United States District Court having jurisdiction over Rowsom vs. Tyrrell. Representative Culpepper’s bill, as several similar ones before it, failed in the General Assembly.

The 2020 primary and general election for county commissioners, and the 2020 election of school board members on Mar. 3, will be conducted as all such elections since 1994, under the Consent Decree’s mandates.