Local Politics

Wake elections officials try to map future for school board, commissioner races

Posted July 7, 2016 5:55 p.m. EDT
Updated July 7, 2016 6:45 p.m. EDT

— Six days after a federal appeals court declared voting districts for the Wake County Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education unconstitutional, county elections officials met behind closed doors Thursday trying to figure out how to handle races for those boards in the November election.

"I would just ask folks to be patient and to stay tuned," Brian Ratledge, chairman of the Wake County Board of Elections, said after a 90-minute meeting between the board and its attorney.

State lawmakers overhauled Wake County's school board districts in 2013, switching from nine single-member districts to seven districts plus two regional districts – one covering the urban center of the county and the other the ring of suburban and rural areas around the edge of the county. Last year, lawmakers adopted a similar map for the Board of Commissioners, which currently has seven members voted on countywide.

Opponents of the maps noted that the Republican-controlled legislature put the new maps in place after Democrats took control of each board, and a group of voters challenged the changes in court.

Although a federal judge upheld the new maps earlier this year, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last Friday that the regional districts violate the equal representation guarantees in the U.S. and state constitutions by packing too many voters in the urban district and not even in the doughnut-shaped one. The appellate court said Republican lawmakers clearly skewed the maps to ensure winning a majority of seats on both boards.

The judges said they "see no reason" to hold elections this fall with the maps, leaving county elections officials trying to find a path forward four months before all nine school board seats and five seats on the Board of Commissioners are up for election.

Ratledge said officials are trying to figure out what their options are and what their next steps should be – they're not even sure whether to appeal the ruling or let it stand – so they plan to consult with the State Board of Elections.

"The board feels like we need a little more information, a little more direction on where to head with this," he said.

The county board can't draw new maps, but it could revert to the maps drawn by the school board and county commissioners after the 2010 census. Elections officials also could ask those boards – or state lawmakers or the courts – to draw new maps.

However, commissioner candidates for this fall were set by the March primary, while school board candidates finished filing for seats last week. If different maps are used, new candidate filing periods, and possibly a special primary, would have to be held.

All of this must be accomplished before Sept. 9, when the county is supposed to start mailing absentee ballots to those who have requested them. Officials could push back that deadline by choosing to hold a special election later this year for school board and county commissioner seats.

Durham mailing new provisional ballots

Meanwhile, Durham County elections officials are trying to clear up their own problems by mailing provisional ballots to nearly 900 voters whose ballots were mishandled in the March primary.

The State Board of Elections ordered the move in May after learning that some provisional ballots were missing, ballots that should not have counted may have been counted and other ballots may have been counted twice.

Voters cast provisional ballots when they encounter an administrative problem, such as voting in the wrong precinct. Of the roughly 1,900 provisional ballots that were mishandled, Durham County elections officials said they believed only 1,039 should count. The State Board of Elections tabulated only 147 of those ballots, saying it couldn't guarantee the validity of the rest, but decided to give the other affected voters a second chance to cast a ballot.

No races were affected by the mistake.