Bill changing elections in most populous NC county advances

Published 11:55 pm Tuesday, February 21, 2023

By Hannah Schoenbaum
Associated Press/Report for America

RALEIGH — A bill that advanced Tuesday in the North Carolina House would change how county commissioners are elected in the state’s most populous county, drawing criticism from Democrats who do not want Republican state lawmakers interfering in their local elections.

The local bill, which could not be vetoed by the Democratic governor, would make Wake County’s commissioner elections nonpartisan and require that members be elected by district, rather than the county at large.

While board members represent seven county commissioner districts, the entire county currently votes for each candidate. Democrats have held every seat on the seven-member panel since 2014.

The House Local Government Committee advanced the proposal in a 7-6 party-line vote, despite the board’s opposition. It now heads to the Rules Committee.

Bill sponsor Rep. Erin Paré, the lone Republican in Wake County’s legislative delegation, said the change would improve representation in the county’s less populated pockets and in unincorporated communities, which can’t elect local leadership and rely on representation at the county level.

“The voices of smaller towns and communities around Wake are overwhelmed by Wake’s population centers,” Paré said. “Cary and Raleigh combined make up 55% of the electorate, effectively dominating the county-wide vote at the expense of smaller communities.”

Board members are currently elected to staggered four-year terms in partisan races.

While all 100 North Carolina counties currently elect their commissioners in partisan elections, Paré said the transition to nonpartisan elections would cater to Wake’s large population of unaffiliated voters who can’t currently participate in the primaries.

Wake, with 1.15 million residents as of mid-2021, surpassed Mecklenburg County as the state’s most populous county in 2019, according to census estimates. It includes the capital city of Raleigh and its rapidly growing suburbs.

The Wake County Democratic Party criticized the proposal in a statement on Twitter, calling it “nothing more than an extreme NC GOP partisan tactic to suppress votes and assert control” over local affairs.

Democratic opponents of the bill, such as Reps. Julie von Haefen of Wake County and Ray Jeffers of Person County, said it sets a bad precedent for the state and needlessly interferes with county governance. Von Haefen said Wake’s legislative delegation was not consulted about the bill, and none of its other members have signed on to it.

But Republicans, who are one seat shy of a supermajority in the General Assembly, would likely have the numbers to pass the bill without Democratic support. Local bills that affect fewer than 15 counties are not subject to a veto.

Shinica Thomas, chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, told lawmakers that the current procedure — requiring each commissioner to live in the district they represent — already ensures all parts of the county have a seat at the table.

“This has served our county well because it requires every commissioner to consider the impact of decisions on the county as a whole,” she said.