Done deal: Lessons from the 2012 district elections

Game changer: Buncombe County’s new district election system helped bring candidates with more diverse views to power on the board of commissioners, including Republican David King and Democrat Brownie Newman. Photos by Max Cooper

As state Rep. Tim Moffitt contemplates a move to switch Asheville to predominantly district elections, similar changes he pushed for the Buncombe County commissioners continue to have far-reaching effects.

The county's district lines, drawn by Republican leaders in Raleigh, resulted in historic gains for GOP candidates here. Three now serve on the seven-member board, and Republicans were just 18 votes shy of gaining a majority, even though Democratic candidates outpolled Republicans 209,757 votes to 136,431.

Confusion over the new district lines resulted in a protracted legal battle over those final numbers. Some Warren Wilson College students and faculty claimed that the division of their small school between two districts was intended to sow chaos and suppress left-leaning voters from turning out. Meanwhile, GOP candidate Christina Kelley G. Merrill filed a series of unsuccessful legal complaints alleging that ballots cast by some of the school’s residents were improperly tallied. (She recently announced she’s dropping the suit and will concentrate on running again next year.)

Four years earlier, under the at-large system, Democrats won every seat. That probably would have happened again in 2012 if the system hadn’t been changed, notes UNCA political science professor Bill Sabo. All of the commissioners in office when state lawmakers mandated the change opposed it. Some critics called it an attempt to thwart democracy.

Republicans, meanwhile, have said the switch will help restore political balance after more than two decades of Democratic rule and ideological domination by Asheville voters, giving more conservative, long-neglected rural residents a voice.

Five months in, however, the slim Democratic majority has arguably moved county government to the left, at least on some issues.

In 2012, the previous board narrowly defeated a measure to protect county employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This February, however, a majority of the current commissioners went much further, approving that measure and extending employee benefits to same- and opposite-sex domestic partners.

The vote was one of the few this year that followed party lines.

Led by Commissioner Joe Belcher, Republicans also unsuccessfully pushed for permanent cuts in county support for nonprofits. The current budget gives such groups more money than last year but much less than they requested.

Meanwhile, Republican Commissioner David King says district elections are working well for residents. “What you have is a good cross section of Republicans and Democrats, people from different sectors of the county, and I think that's good.”

Before the change, critics such as Board Chair David Gantt, a Democrat, worried that commissioners would place their district’s interests above those of the county as a whole.

But that hasn’t happened, says King, citing his support for spending more than $60 million in the coming years on new buildings to replace Isaac Dickson Elementary and Asheville Middle School — neither of which is in his district.

“District elections,” says King, “would be a good thing for the city."

Republican Commissioner Mike Fryar, who’d previously run unsuccessfully under the at-large system, also praises the new approach. Since taking office, he's pushed to cut construction costs on new buildings for A-B Tech.

"We'll listen to the constituents that voted for us and then bring it back to the other commissioners," he explains. "You have to have give and take."

Even Gantt has changed his tune somewhat, saying, "If I was king, I wouldn't have done it. I thought [at-large voting] was a good system.” But voters, he adds, "were very wise to get the commissioners they got, because we do work together very well. … So the result was good."

Looking ahead, Gantt’s biggest concern is that county residents (and their city counterparts, if Moffitt's plan becomes law) will face “taxation without representation: You can't vote for them, and they’re doing things to affect your pocketbook."

And while he concedes that the county hasn’t become "Balkanized" as he predicted, Gantt warns, "It's always the potential in the next election."

Other stories in this week’s cover package exploring the issue of changing Asheville to district elections:

Democracy by decree: Moffitt’s plan — an unusual move to change a local election system by state fiat — has attracted plenty of backlash from Asheville’s local officials. A look at the arguments, and if Asheville’s current election system is fair.

The district advantage: UNCA political science professor Bill Sabo sees definite advantages to district election systems in cities with populations over 100,000. But with Asheville well below that threshold, it’s less clear what making such a switch here might mean. This article also features information on how other cities across the state conduct elections.


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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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