Guilford elections board concerned about redistricting plan

Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne explains changes to the county commission redistricting plans to the board of elections.

Mark Payne, the attorney for Guilford County government, said he’s surprised no one has sued the state of North Carolina to block a new county commission redistricting plan based on unequal representation.

Elections Director George Gilbert seemed to be wondering the same thing when he asked Payne: “At what point does that equal representation issue become relevant to litigation — at the point of filing for an election or winning an election?”

“Any voter would have standing,” Payne responded, and a lawsuit could have been filed as early as last July, when the plan was ratified following a legislative blindside by Republican lawmakers over howls of protest from the Democratic-controlled board.

The Guilford County Board of Elections voted today to send a letter to the NC Board of Elections expressing concern about the redistricting plan, and asking the state board to recommend changes to the General Assembly.

Payne highlighted two problems caused by the redistricting plan imposed by the General Assembly mandating that the size of the commission be reduced from 11 to nine members, with one at-large and one district representative eliminated respectively. With terms set up on a staggered basis, the law provides for each member to complete her four-year term. That means that about half the members will be up for reelection this year, and the other half will continue to serve out their current terms through 2014. Got that?

Five members are seated through 2014, but the two current at-large members are not among them. Four of the new districts are up for reelection. That means the nine seats will be filled by district representatives after the general election in November. According to Payne’s interpretation, that means the county will have no at-large representative for two years, from November 2012 to November 2014.

The more troubling quandary, from a representational standpoint, is that one or two districts will end up with two representatives and one will have no representative for the next two years. Commissioners Linda Shaw and Kay Cashion are both guaranteed seats through 2014, and have been redrawn into the new District 3, which meanders down from Stokesdale in the county’s northwest corner to UNCG in Greensboro’s city center.

Likewise, Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, who currently represents District 9, is guaranteed a seat through 2014, but lives in the new District 7, which is an open seat for purposes of this year’s election. Meanwhile, the new District 6 doesn’t come up for election until 2014. The district, which flanks Interstate 40 and runs from Colfax to north High Point at the western end of the county, will have no representation for the next two years.

Coleman also faces a dilemma, which creates an additional wrinkle for implementation of the plan: If she finishes out her term as representative of the defunct District 9, she will no longer no longer enjoy the advantage of incumbency when the 2014 election comes up. By that time, a new commissioner will be seated in District 7, where she lives. But if Coleman decides to resign as representative of the old District 9 and file this year as a candidate in the new District 7, the board could conceivably end up with eight members instead of the mandated nine.

County Commission Chairman Skip Alston joined the meeting as it wound down, taking a seat at the table with Payne, Gilbert, Deputy Elections Director Charlie Collicutt and the three board of elections members.

“Two districts with two and one with none,” Gilbert summarized. “How does that sound?”

“Sounds like the state to me,” Alston replied dryly. “Totally confused.”

Alston and Dot Kearns, a Democratic member of the board, shared the same concern.

“You hear a lot of talk about ‘one-man-one-vote,’” Kearns said. “You don’t have that here.”

“Taxation without representation,” Alston riffed.

“It’s really applicable to the board of commissioners because they set the tax rate,” Kearns continued.

“The average citizen has no idea what’s going on,” Alston lamented.

Local officials stopped short of opening soliciting citizens to take the state to court to block the plan, but Gilbert made no secret of his distaste for it, exclaiming, “We hope something will be changed.”

Payne emphasized that, notwithstanding a possible legal challenge, the board’s job is to implement the plan.

“This is not a per se illegal statute,” he said. “This statute is the law of the land. Period.”

As it stands, there are four district seats up for election this year: District 4, currently represented by Kirk Perkins; District 5, an open seat by virtue of Commissioner Mike Winstead’s announced retirement that travels up Battleground Avenue from downtown Greensboro to the Rockingham county line; District 7, a minority-majority district that is open this year notwithstanding a possible filing by Coleman; and District 8, currently represented by Alston.

“We’ve had candidates calling us and asking if there’s going to be an at-large contest,” Gilbert said. “We’ve said, ‘We don’t think so, but we don’t know for sure.’ Now, we’re saying there will be no at-large contest unless something changes.”

Filing opens for the county commission on Feb. 13, leaving candidates three and a half weeks to get ready.

Outside of a legal challenge or the county muddling through a flawed plan, a third possibility is a legislative fix, but Payne said the General Assembly would have to call a special session to do that.

As Kathryn Lindley, the sole Republican member of the board of elections, sees it, the fix is simple: Allow the commission to appoint an at-large representative for the next two years and make a minor tweak to the lines so that all districts are represented by one member. Lindley said she planned to contact Republican lawmakers in Raleigh to urge the fix.

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