- A new panel called the Pasquotank County Governance Committee will be looking to develop a proposal that restructures the county board of commissioners so that black voters have a better chance of electing a second commissioner of their choice to the board.
- We applaud creation of the panel and believe it’s way past time to restructure the board for this purpose.
Recent comments by members of a new Pasquotank County panel tasked with developing a proposal to restructure the county’s governing board were both refreshing and depressing.
Refreshing because it’s rare to hear those in public life acknowledge what everyone knows to be true but don’t want to admit: that voters in Pasquotank still overwhelmingly cast their ballots based on the race of the candidate. Depressing, well, because voters in Pasquotank still overwhelmingly cast their ballots according to race.
But the truth is, most blacks in this county still vote for black candidates and most whites vote for white candidates, and denying it won’t make it any less true. What we need are more frank conversations, like the one members of the new Governance Committee had last week, about the problem of race-based voting if we are ever to change the hearts of voters responsible for it. But in the meantime, it’s unfair to ask the county’s black minority to continue to go under-represented on the Board of Commissioners, waiting for the rest of the county electorate to decide when the seven-member board of commissioners should have more than one black member.
Finding a fair plan that can end that under-representation is the principal task of the Governance Committee, a new panel appointed by commission board Chairman Jeff Dixon. The three-member panel of commissioners met recently to discuss how to go about developing a proposal to give Pasquotank’s 40 percent black minority a greater chance of electing more than one commissioner of their choice. That job obviously won’t be easy. Two restructuring plans were proposed and dismissed last year.
Despite the resistance to change, the need for a restructuring plan should be self-evident to anyone familiar with voting patterns in the county.
Under its current structure, the Pasquotank commission is made up of four single-member districts and three at-large seats. This structure didn’t happen by chance. It was imposed in the 1980s in response to a civil rights lawsuit filed by the county’s black community against the commission’s previous structure — an all at-large system that had elected no blacks to the county commission in more than 100 years.
The current hybrid of single-member districts and at-large seats did what it was intended to do: W.C. Witherspoon, a black retired educator, won election to the commission, the first African-American to do so since the late nineteenth century. But since then, only one other black — Cecil Perry, who succeeded Witherspoon after he died — has been elected to the board. Both Witherspoon and Perry were elected in the only commissioner district in the county with a black majority. Two other blacks have served on the board, but only because they were appointed to fill vacant seats. Both subsequently lost to white candidates when they sought terms in their own right. Several other blacks have run for seats on the commission and lost.
Obviously the current system needs revision, but just bringing up the subject of creating a second minority-majority district elicits a near visceral reaction from many white voters. Critics of the idea say redrawing county voting districts to increase the electability of a black candidate is racist and immoral. But interestingly, they express no such qualms when redistricting is carried out to increase the electability of other political minorities.
We don’t recall hearing a peep out of redistricting opponents, for example, when Republican state lawmakers a few years ago ripped Pasquotank in two — just so they could increase the likelihood of a Republican winning the state House seat in the 1st District. Because blacks have traditionally supported Democratic candidates, GOP map-makers carved out areas of Pasquotank with heavy black populations from the 1st District and crammed them into an adjoining district already represented by an African American. They did this so that Republican-leaning voters in what was left of the 1st District could elect a candidate of their choice.
The move paid off: Without the large number of Democratic-leaning black voters in Pasquotank, Republican Bob Steinburg of Chowan cruised to victory in the 1st District last November. This prompts the question: Why is redistricting Pasquotank to help increase the chances of electing a Republican to the state House OK but redistricting the county to elect a second black to the county commission a great moral evil?
Given the level of opposition to restructuring in the past, we have no illusions about the difficulty the Governance Committee is facing. But that doesn’t mean the panel shouldn’t try. We applaud Dixon for creating the committee and assigning it this important task.