Electoral Reform Begins at Home

There are four major electoral changes that Orange County voters should consider. Take note everyone, I said ‘consider.' I am not entirely sure what the best approach would be, but I do think the current system doesn't adequately reflect the diversity of viewpoints in Orange County.

For what they are worth, here are four ideas for County electoral reform that have been bandied about:

1. Increasing Membership

The Orange County Commission has been made up of just five commissioners for over one hundred years. Today we are a community of over 118,000 people. Having five commissioners means having one commissioner for every 22,400 residents. By contrast the Town of Chapel Hill has something more like one Town Council member for every 6,000 residents. Carrboro has less than 2,500 residents per Alderman. I think that it is fine and well for the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) to be a more august body than the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, but it does seem unlikely that any mix of five people could be adequately representative of the 118,000+ or us. Apparently there was a BOCC appointed committee that looked at this issue (as well as others below) and concluded that the BOCC should be expanded to include 7 members. Nothing has happened with that proposal.

2. Non-partisan Elections

This is another interesting idea. Mark Marcoplos used to ask: “What is the Democratic Party's position on landfills?” The point is, of course, that the local issues that come before the BOCC do not usually have that much to do with those issues that are the glue that holds the Democratic Party together (if any). If we had non-partisan elections, perhaps we would have a more open process for electing commissioners. For a fact, the Democratic Primary for BOCC is the election. No non-Democrat has been elected to the BOCC in a long, long time. See other threads for discussion of how long this has been.

On the one hand, this change might make it easier for some right-winger to get elected in Orange County, but on the other this is supposed to be a Democracy. Maybe we would live in a more unified community if the other side had some say in things (even if it was by such a small proportion that they would seldom be able to make an actual impact).

Non-partisan elections would probably cause some voters to self-select out of participating in BOCC elections, because many people will simply not vote in a race about which they know nothing. Currently, such people at least know what political party the candidate belongs to.

3. District Representation

Currently all five Commissioners are elected in countywide elections. No matter where you live in Orange County you get to elect all five Commissioners (as long as you are registered D or U) and those five Commissioners could all come from the same town or even neighborhood. If we had district representation, we would ensure that each member of the Board comes from a different area of the County. There is an active citizen petition circulating on this topic. District representation could work in two different ways:

A) Divide the County into districts and have each district elect its own Commissioner (call this a True District system) or

B) divide the County into districts and have the entire county vote on who represents each district (call this a Ward System).

The Ward System is used in Chatham County and for some seats on the Durham City Council and (I think) the Raleigh City Council. To hear a critique of the Ward System, see section 4 below, Cumulative Voting.

4. Cumulative Voting

Here's a quick explanation of Cumulative Voting from www.fairvote.org :

“In cumulative voting, voters cast as many votes as there are seats. But unlike winner-take-all systems, voters are not limited to giving only one vote to a candidate. Instead, they can put multiple votes on one or more candidates. Voting rights scholar Lani Guinier has promoted cumulative voting as a colorblind means to provide fair minority representation.

“Voters get as many votes as there are people to be elected. Illinois used three-seat districts, so each voter had three votes. Voters could give all of their votes to one candidate, split them up among two or give one vote to each of the three candidates. If there are five people to be elected, voters selecting two candidates would give each candidate 2.5 votes. This allows political minorities to elect someone to office.

“Cumulative voting was used to elect the Illinois state legislature from 1870 to 1980. In recent years it has been used to resolve voting rights cases for city council elections in Amarillo (TX) and Peoria (IL), for county commission elections in Chilton County (AL) and for school board elections in Sisseton (SD) and more than fifty other jurisdictions; in most cases a member from the protected minority was elected following the implementation of cumulative voting. Cumulative voting in 1994 was imposed by a federal judge in a Maryland voting rights case.”

Now first of all, let me point out that “fair minority representation” does not just mean racial minorities. It means any political minority including, for example, Republicans in Orange County. Cumulative Voting, especially combined with expanding the BOCC to 7 members would probably result in better representation of northern Orange County and also result in some more progressive voices from the southern end of the County as well. And it could actually make the BOCC more divisive.

But, voters in northern Orange are currently pretty much completely politically disenfranchised and that does not seem fair to me. While a Ward System would ensure that northern Orange has a representative on the BOCC, it would leave it up to the southern Orange majority to decide who the northern Orange representative is. To over-dramatize it a little, a candidate might run for the northern Orange seat by spending all his/her time campaigning in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. That would not be a very real solution to the problem. In truth, this would be no real change at all from our current system, because right now there are two Commissioners who live in Hillsborough, but who might be said to have “Chapel Hill values.”

On the other hand, in a cumulative voting system, northern Orange voters could concentrate their votes among one or two candidates and manage to win a seat or two. At the same time, there might be other minority interest groups that would gain power in a Cumulative Voting system. Obviously it is hard to argue that African Americans are under-represented on the BOCC at the current time.

Sorry for such a long post, but it is a complex subject that probably deserves even further elaboration than I gave it here. What do you think, OP.org?




Well, Ed, I think it is safe to say that New York City government is a good deal more complex than that (positively baroque, really). In any case, I hardly think that NYC is any sort of model for us. Still, I take your point.

Cool !!!


Very thoughtful and reasonable analysis. I like 1 - 3, but would want to understand #4 better. What is needed to get some real momentum around such reforms?

I have a few comments on this.

1. Drawing a correlation of population to council members is tricky. New York City has 51 council members for about 8 million people, or about 1 for every 150K people. So, even to get to Orange County's level of representation, NYC should be at about 357. The downside is that the larger a board becomes, the more unwieldy decision-making becomes. But all this said, seven is not an outrageous number.

2. Non-partisan county elections is a good idea, even though you had three hands in one of your sentences. Maybe that was a Libertarian hand.

3. A true district system would ensure better representation for all areas of the county, and would bring more diverse opinions to the board. There could also be one or more at-large members.

4. Not a big fan of cumulative voting. It seems to go against the one-person-one-vote principle.

I would add Voter-Owned Elections, e-democracy, and instant runoffs to the list of considerations:



I would like to add one other idea and that is term limits. Two 4 year terms should be more than enough. This also will allow different viewpoints to be present by elected officials. I think elected officials can and do become complacent.

Mark C. - Great post! You captured many of the issues quite well.

What about a hybrid 5 district and 2 or 3 elected at-large system like Raleigh uses?

I have found that most citizens are clueless about how important the primaries are in Orange, so I would give serious consideration to non-partisan elections. You could forego a primary, which would result in more voters influencing who gets elected and it gives more time for consideration of candidates.

In an ideal world, district (or perhaps ward) representation would benefit Orange County. However, I have serious concerns about gerrymandering. I am very troubled about the lack of competition at all levels across the country due to "fixing" districts to insure re-election.

There were some posts about a 1993 "fair representation committee" a while back that everyone might want to check out: http://orangepolitics.org/2004/07/please-pass-the-salt/#comment-18652

What is the process for changing this? I presume the state legislature would have to pass a "local act" in a long-session year. There are also implications on how appointments would be made in case of resignation, etc.

Some changes are possible without the Legislature. I think things like districts, wards, number of members and maybe even partisanship are within local control. That is, I think it is up to the County Commission.

Public financing, cumulative voting, instant run-off, Voter Owned Elections and e-democracy probably require Legislative approval. But I am not sure what Voter Owned Elections means.

As for momentum, I think that if progressive democrats and conservative dems and republicans and northern Orange citizens (and I mean yer real nothern Orange people - your Schley people and your Hurdle Mills people) can all come together to call for change, then you would really have something going on.

I actually think it would not be hard for all of those people above to agree on one reasonably unified agenda.

There was a bill before the state legislature, endorsed by the Chapel Hill Town Council and Carrboro Alderman, to local options to implement Locally Owned Elections. Unfortunately, the bill was never voted on and so will need to be reintroduced this year. I believe Ellie Kinnaird was one of the sponsors.


e-democracy is a way of using information technology to support two way communications between politicians and citizens. No state legislative endorsement is required for communities to adopt e-democracy.

Terri thanks for the clarification of VOE (a better name for Public Financing, I guess). I think you have posted re: e-democracy before. Is there a group that has suggested steps that make up e-democracy?

Obviously anyone could email elected officials - and some do. And OP.org provides an unusual opportunity to interact with some elected officials in Orange County. But I am assuming that there is something more to e-democracy than that . . .

Ruby and I were recently discussing (off-line) the way that some people use OP.org as an opportunity to publicly pose direct questions to elected officials. That is not something that we get much opportunity to do.

You can call the Mayor of Chapel Hill up and ask him a question, but then you are the only person who hears the answer. Or you can rely on the press to ask your questions, but what if they don't ask - or don't publish the response? Or you can go to a Town Council meeting and petition at the beginning, but the elected officials are under no obligation to directly respond in that situation. Even at election time, most candidate forums do not allow the audience to directly question the candidates.

As a Northern OC resident, I agree with the general tone of your thoughts and like items # 1,2 & 3A.

However, you lost some credibility with me when you used the term "right winger". I don't use the term "bleeding heart liberals" because I know it's a cheap shot and does not fairly represent everyone in the Democratic party.

I realize that as a conservative Republican, I'm in the minority around here. However, I'd like to think that my fellow Republicans and I might occasionally have some value to add to our county, without being pigeon holed as "right-wingers".

Again, thanks for the timely & thoughtful thread.

Have any of you seen the petition going around asking for district represention to be considered by the County Commissioners? I saw it about 6 weeks ago and someone asked me about it last week. It seem to be in the rural area mostly.

My brother always says: A guilty conscience needs no accuser.

But if you don't like the term right-winger I will respect that.

Certainly not all Republicans are right-wing.


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