Faced with recently passed state legislation mandating that the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners switch to district elections, the commissioners may counter by holding a referendum on the way the board is elected, Chair David Gantt tells Xpress.
The idea would be to change the system back to at-large elections before any district elections were held in 2012, he explains.
“We think it would change the existing system of representation, which at this moment in time is districts” says Gantt. “There’s a lot of interest in it, and we’re trying to get the facts. I think once we get the facts, we’ll make a decision.”
Republican Rep. Tim Moffitt introduced the change to district elections in March, without consulting or informing either his colleagues in the local legislative delegation or the current commissioners, all of whom are Democrats. Under Moffitt’s leadership, the Republican-controlled Legislature shot down amendments proposed by Rep. Patsy Keever and Sen. Martin Nesbitt (both Buncombe Democrats) requiring a binding referendum on the bill. Passing the law without any provision for a referendum or a local request was unprecedented in state history.
Moffitt argued that the measure would make commissioners more accountable to underserved areas of the county while giving less prosperous candidates in both parties a better chance of winning. Gantt, however, declared that the change would limit democracy by preventing residents from voting for all the commissioners.
Similarly, now Gantt argues that any new effort to hold a referendum would be about more than just partisianship.
“There are a lot of Republicans that have told me they’re concerned about losing the right to vote for all the commissioners,” he maintains. “So it’s not necessarily a Democratic issue. … I would probably support at least a referendum to let everybody vote.”
The commissioners themselves rebuffed a previous attempt in 2008, proposed by then-Chair (and Republican) Nathan Ramsey to put district elections to a referendum. And it’s not yet clear how much support the idea has now from the other commissioners, Gantt says.
“It’s got to be a majority of the commission to pass and I think our commission’s all over the board on that issue,” he explains. “We’ll have to decide by August.”
Meanwhile, “there’s a lot of information we have to get together before we make a call on it,” notes Gantt. And the General Assembly is planning to release new district maps for Buncombe’s commission and House districts Monday, July 11.
A referendum could make it on the ballot this November. There is no statutory deadline for referendums, according to staff at the Board of Elections, though absentee ballots have to be ready about 45 days before a municipal election.
Although Gantt says that “a lot of people” are looking in to the referendum, Buncombe Democratic Chair Emmet Carney declined to comment on whether or not he thinks a referendum was coming.
The commissioners’ next meeting is July 26.