by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
(See the update at the end of this post.)
House Bill 99, sponsored by Rep. Erin Paré (R-Wake), introduces an essential reform to how county commissioners would be elected in Wake County. It also makes a change that would deny voters helpful information.
The first change the bill would make is to change how Wake County votes for county commissioners from county-wide to by-district. As I told The Carolina Journal, it is well past time for Wake County to make that switch:
“Changing county commission races in Wake County to a district-based system is a good idea. The current district-at-large arrangement, requiring candidates to live in the district but being voted on countywide, is an illusion of local representation. In every district, the majority of votes come from outside that district.”
Under the current arrangement, most of the votes for the commissioner representing southern Wake County (where I was raised) come from Raleigh. The same is true for all the districts on the county’s edge. It is a particularly ridiculous arrangement for a county as large, diverse, and populous as Wake.
The bill should go further. According to the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, 24 counties use a district-at-large system like Wake County. A further 39 counties have at-large elections, skipping the pretense of requiring that commissioners come from a particular part of the county.
There may be a good reason for less populous counties to avoid the expense and hassle of drawing commissioner districts every ten years. Rather than requiring district elections just for Wake County, the General Assembly should seek further study to determine if there is an optimal minimum county population for requiring counties to elect commissioners by district.
While the portion of the bill requiring Wake County to election commissioners by district does not go far enough, a part requiring those races to be nonpartisan goes too far.
The commissioner races should remain partisan. Partisan elections are generally better at gauging the will of voters than nonpartisan elections because the former provide voters with more information and have a higher turnout. They provide voters with information they can use as a mental shortcut when making choices. That is especially true in relatively low-information races, such as county commissioner.
We already know the detrimental effect of switching to nonpartisan races. When North Carolina experimented with nonpartisan judicial elections, participation in those elections dropped dramatically:
The difference in dropoff between partisan and nonpartisan Supreme Court races is dramatic. The average decrease in partisan Supreme court races is 2.8 percent. For nonpartisan races, the average was 22.8%, which in the 2020 election would have been 1,259,655 fewer votes for the Supreme Court. In partisan years, that number would have been just 148,131. In other words, switching to nonpartisan judicial elections would have resulted in over a million fewer people voting in Supreme Court elections in 2020.
HB 99 can be an excellent first step toward election reform, but it still needs some work.
MARCH 7 UPDATE: Rep. Paré has reached a deal with Democrats on the Wake Couty Board of Commissioners on commission elections. They have agreed to have seven commissioners elected by district and will add two at-large commissioners. County commissioner races will remain partisan. This should provide bipartisan support for the bill in the General Assembly.