Wake commissioners election bill advances in legislature despite objections

Republican state lawmakers are moving ahead with a bill to change how Wake County elects its Board of Commissioners, despite objections by the sitting Wake County Board of Commissioners and all but one of the county's lawmakers.

Posted Updated
Election Day is Nov. 6, but early voting is underway
Laura Leslie
, WRAL capitol bureau chief

Republican state lawmakers are moving ahead with a bill to change how Wake County elects its Board of Commissioners, despite objections by the sitting Wake County Board of Commissioners and all but one of the county's lawmakers.

Under current law, Wake County commissioners must live in the district they run for, but they're elected by voters countywide. Each voter gets a say in all seven races. For the past few years, Democrats have dominated those elections, winning every contested commissioners race in 2022 with more than 60% of the vote.

House Bill 99, filed by the sole Republican member of the Wake delegation, Rep. Erin Paré, would change the law so that residents of each district would vote only in their district's commissioner's race. It would also make commissioner races nonpartisan and won by plurality — who ever gets the most votes — rather than requiring a majority.

Paré said Wake is the only large city in the state that still elects its commissioners on a countywide basis. She said the population centers in Raleigh and Cary are drowning out the voices of rural voters in unincorporated areas of the county.

"It really does provide increased accountability for those smaller towns, so they know that they have someone that's looking out for them on the Board of Commissioners in the end and the issues that are important to their part of the county," Paré told the House Local Government committee Tuesday.

Paré said she asked the commissioners last year to make the change themselves.

"I said, 'Look, this is a no-brainer, please do this,'" she said. "'Can you please make this change so the General Assembly doesn't have to?' Of course, they didn't decide to do that, which is too bad."

Rep. Jullie von Haefen, D-Wake, opposed the bill, pointing out that no other county statewide uses nonpartisan elections to choose their commissioners.

"It's just bad precedent for our state. And I would hope that the members of this committee will consider that when voting on this bill," von Haefen said. "What's to say that this won't happen in your county?"

Amber Harris, director of government relations at the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, agreed.

"We do not typically engage on local bills," she told the committee. "However, this bill really sets a troubling precedent for state interference in local elections. The association believes that county commissioners should be involved in determining the boundaries and methods of their elections, just like members of the General Assembly are."

Wake County resident John Adcock spoke in favor of the bill, said the current laws enable a candidate to lose a vote in the district, but ultimately win the election. "It's about not who sits in the seat," he said. "It's about the seat itself."

Former Wake commissioner Phil Matthews, a Republican, also spoke in favor of the bill.

Current chairwoman Shinica Thomas, a Democrat, spoke against it, noting that the majority of counties in this state also elect their commissioners countywide. She said the current board is the most geographically diverse board in recent memory, representing many small towns.

"This has served our county well because it requires every commissioner to consider the impact of decisions on the county as a whole," Thomas told the committee. "This countywide election approach helps our board tackle the challenges of a rapidly growing county in a collaborative, collaborative and comprehensive way."

About 30 members of the public had signed up to speak, so comments were limited to one minute per person. However, committee leaders cut off public comment after a handful of speakers and moved quickly to a vote, approving the measure on party lines.

After the vote, Wake County Vice Chair Susan Evans said the board didn't even know about the bill until the day it was filed. She the process has been "very rushed."

Evans said counties use partisan races "so that we can have primaries, so that when we get to the November election, there is a candidate who clearly has won more than 50% of the vote." Under Paré's bill, she said, if many candidates were to run in a district, someone could win with just a few percent.

Thomas said she was disappointed that so many people who had come to speak against the bill were not allowed to, and she was hoping there would be more compromise with the bill's main sponsor.

"When you're elected at large, every neighborhood in this county is a concern of yours. Every neighborhood has a voice that matters to you, because every neighborhood votes for you," Thomas said.

Outside the room, the group supporting the bill cheered and clapped. Karen Raines was among them. She lives in north Raleigh, and she believes the bill would help elect a Republican commissioner from her area.

"As it stands now, the representation of conservative voices is disproportionate to the number of seats on the council," Raines said. "Our voices is being diluted unfairly, and this bill will make it more equitable."

This is not the first time lawmakers have gotten involved in county commissioner elections. They've passed laws in the past affecting Wake, Mecklenburg, Guilford and Buncombe - all Democratic-leaning counties.

The state Democratic Party criticized the bill as "an unnecessary power grab by Republicans."

In a statement, state NCDP chair Anderson Clayton said GOP lawmakers "want to rewrite the rules to help their own party and take power away from local communities."

"People know what’s best for their own communities – they don’t need politicians in Raleigh to dictate it for them." Clayton added.

Although the bill deals with elections, it was not given a referral to the House Elections committee. Instead, it was sent to Rules, and it could be on the House floor for a vote later this week.


Copyright 2024 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.