Right to change Beaufort County Voting System secured | Beaufort County Now | Right to change Beaufort County Voting System secured

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By: Steven Rader

Thanks both to recent legwork by Rep. Keith Kidwell (R-Beaufort) and work long ago by former Rep. Sandy Hardy (R-Beaufort), the right of Beaufort County citizens to change our system of electing commissioners by a process of petition and referendum has finally been secured.  Although citizens of most cities and towns in North Carolina have long had this right, Beaufort County is the first county in the state to secure it for citizens.

 The effort to secure this right for our citizens began in the 1997 session of the NC House, when Rep. Hardy introduced House Bill 892, and guided it to passage as Session Law 1997-265, securing bi-partisan support in the Senate from Senators Ed Warren (D-Pitt) and Marc Basnight (D-Dare).  The bill, at the request of Basnight, required a referendum on whether to allow referendums during the 1998 general election. That was passed by Beaufort  County voters by a wide margin.  

 Under the federal Voting Rights Act, the legislation was required to receive pre-clearance from the US Justice Department, and the bill instructed the NC Justice Department to seek that preclearance. Here is where things took a wrong turn, because the NC Justice Department never filed a request for preclearance and the legislation sat in limbo as a result.

 Hardy's successor, liberal Rep. Zeno Edwards (D-Beaufort) boasted that he had killed the “Hardy bill”, as he called it.  Apparently, he may have had something to do with the NC Justice Deparment never sending it for preclearance, as he never filed any bill to repeal it. 

 There matters rested until the election of Rep. Keith Kidwell in 2018.  Kidwell introduced legislation similar to the Hardy bill and guided it to passage in the House in 2019, but it did not get out of committee that session in the Senate.  In January 2021, he refiled it as House Bill 3, the third bill filed in the NC House this session.  It passed its first committee and was headed for its second, when a legislative staffer's comment got his attention, and Kidwell began looking into the possibility that Hardy's HB 892 was now actually law in North Carolina, directing the legislative staff to further research the issue.

 What changed everything was that in 2013, the US Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County versus Holder that the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional and that preclearance of election changes was no longer required,  Research by the legislative staff at Kidwell's direction, determined that there was no record of the 1997 session law ever being submitted for preclearance, and since preclearance was no longer required under Shelby County versus Holder, the 1997 law granting this right to Beaufort County citizens became effective immediately after the SCOTUS decision in the Shelby County case.

 Under Hardy's Session Law 1997-265, a petition from 15% of the registered voters of Beaufort County to change the method of electing either the county commission or the school board requires a referendum at the next general election in which county voters vote for or against the proposed change.  If it passes, the election system is changed  to the new method. 

Editorial Comment: The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners, at their May 3rd meeting, voted to send a letter to the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tem of the Senate advising that the cost of litigation at the Federal Level to deal with the court order that created the present method of electing commissioners should be paid by the State of North Carolina. 
The letter advises that Representative Kidwell has not informed or met with the Beaufort County Board of County Commissioners about his activities that would change the way Commissioners are elected.

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( May 4th, 2021 @ 9:22 pm )
The county commission is a party to the lawsuit that is mentioned. The legislature and Beaufort county citizens at large are NOT, making coordination between commissioners and the others on these issues problematic. Beaufort county is saddled with the hated limited voting system because a previous all Demorat board of commissioners betrayed citizens in a politically corrupt backroom deal on this consent court order.

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