Asheville, N.C. — Asheville City Council voted in July to amend the city’s charter to create six single-member districts for seats on the Council. The new plan would replace the current at-large system, in which all six seats on City Council are elected by citywide vote. The mayor would continue to be elected by all city voters.
The change is to go into effect “only on approval by vote of the people,” according to Council’s resolution. City voters will decide whether to approve the new setup in a referendum that appears on the Nov. 7 general election ballot. (See sidebar, “On the ballot”)
But Asheville’s top elected officials won’t be disappointed if voters reject the electoral scheme they’ve proposed. In fact, most Council members have made it clear that’s the outcome they are hoping for.
Riddle me this
“There is a lot of confusion, which there should be, because this is actually pretty complicated,” says Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer of the paradoxical motivations behind Council’s move to amend the city’s charter.
“I think if people were just being asked the academic question of whether or not they want [election] districts,” Manheimer continues, “it would stand a really good chance of winning.”
But instead of the more general question of whether district-based elections should replace the at-large system, the referendum asks voters to respond to a specific structure imposed by a new state law.
First proposed by Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville just before his retirement in 2016, the legislation creating election districts in Asheville was reintroduced by his successor, Sen. Chuck Edwards, in March this year.
Over time, the Apodaca/Edwards bill has been “modified and modified and modified,” Manheimer says. Some of those changes came in the wake of a federal court decision on a state-mandated redistricting plan for the city of Greensboro, she explains.
The Greensboro legislation prevented that city’s voters from reversing the state’s changes to the new districts for a set period of time. A similar prohibition was included in the legislation that created election districts for seats on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners in 2011.
But the federal court ruled the state’s Greensboro legislation treated that city’s voters differently than other citizens by prohibiting them from voting on their municipal electoral system. The disparity amounted to a violation of Greensboro citizens’ constitutional right to equal protection under the law, the court said.
After the April court decision, state lawmakers removed language that would have prevented Asheville from holding a referendum on the issue.
The bill, which passed into law on June 29, requires Asheville to amend the city’s charter to implement six single-member election districts for seats on City Council by Nov. 1, a deadline Manheimer says the city has met. The law also establishes a Nov. 15 deadline for the city to draw the district lines.
Asheville’s not rushing to draw the lines, the mayor says. “We are in a bit of a showdown here with the legislature, because we haven’t taken any steps to draw lines, and we’re going to look at the outcome of the vote and decide what to do,” she explains.
Edwards’ 48th Senate District includes just over 10,000 registered voters who live in South Asheville, in addition to residents of Henderson, Buncombe and Transylvania counties. Under the current system, he says, “If a citizen now has a viewpoint or an issue, there is no single council member that is assigned to nor accountable to that citizen’s concerns.” District elections would result in “a much greater likelihood that the citizens would know, or at least have a better chance of getting to know their Council member because they would live in the same part of the city,” he says.
Running in a district the candidate calls home, he adds, would be less expensive than mounting a citywide campaign, meaning more people could be motivated to run for office in a district system.
While South Asheville has historically elected few of its residents to Council, concern that the area is underrepresented has lost some of its urgency in the face of the results of this year’s City Council primary. Vijay Kapoor, a resident of the Ballantree neighborhood off Sweeten Creek Road in South Asheville, captured the largest share of primary votes of the 12 candidates.
Kapoor has said he’s not a fan of the the Apodaca/Edwards plan for district elections. “I neither support the bill nor do I agree with the manner in which Sen. Edwards is proceeding,” he declares in a position statement on his campaign website. He sees the bill as a way to boost conservative candidates and he believes “districts create turf and have the potential to pit parts of the city against each other in competition.”
Carl Mumpower, chair of the Buncombe County Republican Party, doesn’t hesitate to frame the issue in ideological terms. He says sitting Council members are using the referendum vote to “preserve their 100 percent liberal-progressive lock on our governing body.”
Calling district elections “the only way a potential for balanced representation can be introduced,” Mumpower nonetheless expects the referendum to fail. “Putting this issue to an organized voting bloc that dominates the 15 percent of voters who typically come out for municipal elections is motion over action,” he says.
Not only is the situation complicated, Manheimer says, “it’s unprecedented.” The mayor says neither she nor the city attorney has found evidence of a similar situation in the state’s history.
“We’ve had local governments in North Carolina successfully challenge legislation like this, that either imposed redistricting of their county commission seats or their council seats,” she says. “But we haven’t had a situation where the council or the commission concurrently ran a referendum issue in the face of the legislation.”
That hadn’t happened because previous legislation prohibited the local bodies from taking a vote, she says. In light of the federal court’s ruling, “We felt like we needed to ask the voters about the proposal in this legislation,” Manheimer says.
Depending on the outcome, the referendum could set the stage for the city to challenge the state’s effort to impose districts. “If for some reason this were to end up in the courts, you need to be able to demonstrate to the judge that the voters considered this exact concept that’s proposed in this legislation,” the mayor explains.
Mumpower is thinking along similar lines. “We can look forward to city property owners funding a legal battle with Raleigh,” he says.
Asked what she’s hearing in the community about the referendum, Darlene Azarmi of the nonprofit voting rights advocacy organization Democracy NC responds, “We are pretty much hearing nothing. Our volunteers are saying we aren’t hearing about this, and we should be.”
To address a lack of information among local voters, Azarmi and her volunteers organized an educational event on the district election referendum on Oct. 17. Although Democracy NC hasn’t taken a position on the issue, Azarmi says, “The majority of City Council candidates don’t support the proposed districts. Among people who are politically inclined and interested, there seems to be a consensus that this will not pass in Asheville.” Still, she adds, “You never know.”
South Asheville resident Olivia Randolph opposes the state’s plan. “I voted for Vijay because he’s against districting, but also because he’s from South Asheville, where I live. I was excited to have a good candidate who understands the issues we face down here, but I don’t want to be forced to vote for someone in South Asheville just because they’re the only option in my district,” she says.
Rather than dividing the city into a collection of geographical entities, Randolph says, “We should focus on developing strong candidates across the city who we can all feel good about supporting.”
Commenting at City Council’s meeting on April 25, Rich Lee called Edwards’ district legislation “a unique threat to the city of Asheville and our decision-making and our ability to tackle the big kind of holistic challenges like affordability and devoting resources to sections of the city.” If the districting scheme proposed by Edwards were implemented, Lee said, “There’d be a lot more factionalism and a lot more focus on these separate fiefdoms.”
Lee is a candidate for City Council. He lives in Haw Creek, a neighborhood of East Asheville. He finished fifth in the primary election with just under 10 percent of the vote; along with the five other top finishers in the primary, Lee advanced to the general election.
As voters go to the polls during early voting leading up to Election Day on Nov. 7, Edwards maintains that the outcome of the referendum is irrelevant. “No referendum on the matter will circumvent the state’s requirement of the city to meet all of the provisions of the law leading up to and including the districted elections to be held in 2019,” the senator says.
For her part, Manheimer says Asheville voters are tired of state meddling in the city’s affairs. “I think, because this is being imposed on us by the legislature, and there’s such resistance to that form of governing, that it’s not likely to pass.”