Hoffler: Voting change opposed
By Peter Williams
The Perquimans Weekly
Monday, April 16, 2018
HERTFORD — Any effort to change Perquimans County’s system of electing county commissioners that hurts minority voters will be met with a stiff challenge, a county commissioner says.
Commissioner Joe Hoffler said he opposes changes to the county’s “single-shot” voting system floated recently by fellow Commissioner Kyle Jones.
Adopted in 1993 and taking effect a year later, the current system calls for three commissioners to be elected every two years. However, voters only get to cast a ballot for one candidate.
The single-shot system was a home-grown solution to what had been a persistent problem in Perquimans for decades: no African American had ever been elected to the county Board of Commissioners. While the new system has been successful electing more African Americans, women and Republicans to what formerly was an all-white, all-male and all-Democrat Board of Commissioners, Jones recently called the system “absurdly convoluted” and outdated.
Jones, a Republican in his second term on the commission board, said he favors a hybrid district system — some commissioners would run in districts, others countywide — as a replacement.
“I have recently been thinking more about whether or not it would be advantageous for the county to go to a district system of voting, like most other area counties,” Jones said. “My personal preference, at this juncture, would be to go to a system where we have three or four districts.”
Hoffler, however, said he opposes the change because of the impact he believes it could have on minority candidates and voters.
“It (the current system) works for us, the citizens of Perquimans County. I’m not going to stand by and the NAACP is not going to stand by, watching us go backward,” he said.
The current Perquimans Board of Commissioners is made up of four white men, one black woman and one black man: Hoffler. Three of the commissioners are Democrats, two are Republicans and one is registered unaffiliated.
Making a new voting system work that included both districts and at-large seats would require drawing entirely new districts. The county’s current voting precincts couldn’t be used because their populations are widely out of balance. Nicanor, for example, has only 226 voters, while Bethel has 2,863 and New Hope has 2,237.
Jones said he envisions making Bethel and New Hope new districts, and then crafting one or two others from the populations of East and West Hertford, Belvidere, Nicanor and Parkville precincts. The new voting system would also feature three at-large commission seats, he said.
Hoffler, however, said he would oppose any redrawing of commissioner districts because he’s concerned about the prospect for gerrymandering.
“That (gerrymandering) is the political sensitive ‘hot potato’ that Commissioner Jones skillfully avoided mentioning,” Hoffler said.
Before 2013, the county would have had to seek “pre-clearance” from the U.S. Justice Department to make a change to its voting system. But pre-clearance is no longer required for voting-related changes following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a provision of the Voting Rights Act that required the federal permission.
But just because the Justice Department can no longer summarily block a voting-related change, doesn’t mean it can’t be challenged by a citizen and stopped by a federal court, Hoffler said.
“Not having to get permission from the Justice Department by no means indicates that any change will not be challenged in the courts,” he said, citing examples in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Texas and North Carolina where voting-related changes have been challenged in the courts.
Hoffler said he wasn’t sure how serious Jones is about changing the current system for electing commissioners.
“He could be just testing the waters to see if there would be any opposition, and I’m saying there will be opposition,” Hoffler said. “Any change that dilutes the black vote will be challenged. My advice to my fellow commissioner is since the system for electing county commissioners in Perquimans County is not broken, don’t try to fix it by gerrymandering the voting precincts.”