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District elections could be a partisan game changer in Jackson

In what he characterized as simply starting the discussion, Jackson County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam broached the idea of changing how voters elect county commissioners.


Debnam brought up the topic at an informal county commissioner work session, where it met with divided support. Debnam floated the idea of electing commissioners by district — with only the voters who live in that district getting to chose their candidates.

In the left-leaning Jackson County, at-large elections tend to give the edge to Democrats. Despite a couple of conservative strongholds in parts of the county, the liberal voice usually overwhelms the chances of a conservative winning a county commissioner seat.

A conservative candidate from Whittier, for example, may not pass voter scrutiny in the liberal haven of Cullowhee. 

Carving the county up into distinct voting blocks, could help Republicans to secure their base and keep their seats on the county board of commissioners.

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County commissioners are already elected from geographic districts within the county — sort of. Commissioners are elected from one of four geographic territories. While candidates run for seats according to the district where they live, voters countywide get to vote in all the races for all the districts.

Debnam said that arrangement deserves some examination. He suggested only the voters who live in a district should get to vote on the candidates running from that district.

“I feel that we should start a discussion,” Debnam said. “This is something we need to be looking at.”

The change would give the distinct geographic communities their own voice when electing a county commissioner from their neck of the woods. Currently, the voters of a district can be outnumbered be voters in the rest of the county.

That’s what happened in Cashiers in the last commissioners election, when Commissioner Mark Jones lost among voters his own district but won the seat thanks to support from the rest of the county.

Jones is a Democrat, and the left-leaning voters in the county as whole outnumbered the conservative voting bloc of Cashiers.

Jones said he likes to think of himself as a representative of all of Jackson County, not just the Cashiers area. He also questioned the partisan motives for such voting changes. 

If the Republican stronghold of Cashiers was left to its own devices, it could easily elect a Republican to the county board every time.

“That’s what raised my red flag about this,” Jones said.

But Debnam claimed his motivation for approaching the issue isn’t political but has more to do with confusion among voters about how commissioners are elected. The system in place isn’t intuitive, he said.

“There are just a lot of people I talk to that don’t realize they don’t necessarily elect their district representatives,” Debnam said. “Just because a person is elected doesn’t mean they carried their district — that’s what they can’t understand.”

Jones isn’t the first commissioner in Jackson County to be elected without support from his home district, either. Former commissioners Franz Whitmire, Eddie Madden and Jay Coward, who is now the county’s attorney and was also present at the work session, did not carry their own districts on the path to Election Day victory.

Prior to 1992, the county didn’t divvy up commissioner seats by district at all. But that meant all the commissioners could end up coming from the county’s population centers and never from outlying areas. So the county switched to districts — currently one commissioner is elected from each the geographic territories of Cashiers, Whittier, Cullowhee and Sylva.

Yet, Jones said that true district representation has been proven successful most often in localities with higher density populations and a larger voting public. Jackson County with it 40,000 residents, split four ways, might not be the best place for such elections.

“The success rate of voting by district is in higher population areas, municipalities, cities,” he said.

Jackson County Elections Director Lisa Lovedahl pointed out there are 15 counties statewide that elect by district; 42 elect with countywide elections; 19 limit candidates to residing in particular district yet elect commissioners by countywide vote; 20 use a combination of district and at-large seats; the remaining four counties use other methods.

To make changes to Jackson County’s commissioner elections, the fast-track method would be having the General Assembly pass a bill. Or there could be a countywide special election that would cost an estimated $70,000. Otherwise, a referendum vote would have to be placed on a ballot in a 2014 election and the soonest the county could switch over would be 2016.

Debnam said he would like to see the matter voted on by county residents, not done by the state. In 2011, district-based voting for county commissioners was implemented in Buncombe County by the General Assembly, changing the dynamics of county politics.

“I don’t agree with that,” Debnam said. “If it happens it needs to be done by a vote from the people.”

Republican Commissioner Doug Cody agreed that any changes should come from the voice of the people.

“I don’t think you can ever go wrong by letting the people decide how they want their government to work,” Cody said. “That’s their right to say ‘yes’ we do or ‘no’ we don’t.”

Commissioner Vicki Green, a Democrat, feared the change would prompt commissioners to only care about currying favors for their own district rather than looking out for the greater good of the county as a whole. She said more research needs to be done on the unintended consequences.

“I would like to know how that has changed the way that people work,” she said. “Am I thinking about spending money in one district versus others?”

Republican Commissioner Charles Elders said district-only elections would make the process more intimate, though, and vet better candidates in the end.

“Who knows you better than your district?” he said. “The people you go to church with, the people you work with in your area.”

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