Perquimans voting system does not need fixing


Sunday, April 22, 2018

How do you break something that isn’t broken? By fixing it, of course.

That old saw recently came to mind after a Perquimans County commissioner suggested the county explore changes to its voting method for county commissioners — changes that almost certainly would result in a county governing board that’s less diverse and offers fewer differing opinions than the one county voters now produce.

Commissioner Kyle Jones, one of two Republicans on the six-member Perquimans Board of Commissioners, recently floated the idea of changing the method the county’s used since 1994 to elect commissioners, describing it as outdated and “absurdly convoluted.” Under that system, voters elect three members of the commission board every two years but only get to vote for one of them. It’s typically known as a “single-shot” system, because voters get one “shot,” or one vote, for the candidate of their choice.

Perquimans adopted the single-shot method in 1993 to ward off potential litigation against what had been its decades-old at-large voting system at the time. Under the county’s at-large system, no African-American had ever been elected to the Board of Commissioners, despite the fact African-Americans made up a sizable part of the county’s population and voting electorate.

Over the past near-quarter century, Perquimans’ single-shot voting system has not only changed that dynamic, it’s changed it dramatically. Not only is the election of African-Americans to the commission board now routine, registered Republicans also regularly win more than one seat on the board, despite making up only about 26 percent of the county’s electorate. Women also now regularly win seats.

As evidence of this diversity, the current board includes four white men, one black man and a black woman. That’s roughly equivalent to the county’s population: 74 percent of which is white and 23 percent of which is black.

The board’s political makeup is equally diverse: three commissioners are registered Democrats, two are Republicans and one is registered unaffiliated. And given that only three commission candidates are on the ballot this fall, Perquimans voters will likely be the first in the region to elect a registered Libertarian, Alan Lennon, to a county commissioner seat. The other two candidates also show the diversity Perquimans voters have come to expect: one’s a Democrat, the other’s a Republican.

So why does Perquimans’ voting system need fixing?

Jones didn’t sound exactly sure himself why when he discussed the idea with colleagues at the board’s recent retreat. Jones acknowledged the current voting system “was probably needed at the time” and that “it has worked,” giving Perquimans County “the most diverse board in this corner of the state.” But he still believes it needs changing, even at the risk of producing what he acknowledged could be a “less-diverse” board.

While he’s open to ideas, Jones said his personal preference would be for Perquimans to adopt a voting system similar to that used in other area counties where three or four commissioners are elected from districts and three others run at-large. He says that would provide “fairer representation” to Perquimans citizens. But that sounds questionable, given the board is already representative of the county’s population.

Until a few years ago, any suggested changes to Perquimans’ voting system automatically would have drawn the scrutiny of the U.S. Justice Department. Under what was then known as the Section 5 provision of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, Perquimans was one of the counties in North Carolina required to get “pre-clearance” approval from the Justice Department for any voting-related changes. The pre-clearance requirement was designed to prevent local approval of changes that could hurt minorities’ chances of electing candidates of their choice.

That changed in 2013, however, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Section 5 provision, ending the pre-clearance requirement. Citizens still have the right to petition the federal government to pre-clear any proposed voting changes, but the scrutiny isn’t automatic like it used to be. Also, given the voting rights-unfriendly stance of the Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department, it seems unlikely there will be prior federal review of any proposed voting changes.

We’re not sure how serious Jones or the commission board in Perquimans are about changing the county’s method for electing commissioners. It was good to see, however, one of Jones’ colleagues, Commissioner Joe Hoffler, say any change that hurts minorities’ ability to elect candidates of their choice will be strongly challenged.   

Hoffler, one of the board’s two African-American members, said he’s particularly wary of any effort to draw a district system in Perquimans — an effort he believes almost certainly would result in gerrymandered voting precincts that would dilute African-American voting strength. He said both he and the county’s NAACP chapter would fight any such effort in court.

Hoffler said his advice to Jones is not to “try and fix” a voting system that’s not broken. We think that’s sound advice.