Beaufort County struggles with what to do about Limited Voting | Eastern North Carolina Now

    Publisher's Note: This article originally appeared in the Beaufort Observer.

    The Monday August 5 public hearing on a report from the Beaufort County Limited Voting Elections Committee produced uncertainty. After a committee composed of 12 citizens and commissioners studied how to change limited voting for six months Chairman Gary Brinn tabled his motion citing the need for further study.

    Three citizens spoke at he public hearing. Comments consisted of a brief history of limited voting presented by Stan Deatherage followed by Keith Mason complaining the meetings were not advertised well enough for citizen attendance and the lack of public involvement in the process. He complained that he had difficulty in finding out when meetings were held and therefore did not have the opportunity to attend meetings. Roland Whitley stated that the proposal would deny minorities the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice as much as they now have.

    Elections Director Kelli Hopkins explained the Committee's proposal.

    After the public hearing, Commissioner Gary Brinn made a motion to proceed with changing the present litigation settlement to give voters an additional vote only when four commissioners were running. Four commissioners are elected ever four years. Three commissioners are elected in a staggered four year schedule. The additional vote when four commissioners are running was recommended by the study committee based on a report prepared by Professor Arrington with UNC at Charlotte about seven years ago. This is the only change in limited voting recommended by the study committee.

    Brinn presented a report prepared by Steve Modlin, East Carolina University Political Science Assistant Professor, whose opinion was that the additional vote would produce a sure fire election win for sitting minority commissioner Jerry Langley.

    Each commissioner presented his comments on the proposal. Robert Belcher made a plea for districts similar to those used to elect school board members. The School Board method of election resulted from the merger of Washington City Schools and Beaufort County Schools. The court order impacting the schools was related to student assignment, not election of the boards. Chairman Jerry Langley and Commissioner Ed Booth stated flatly they supported no change to the present limited voting system and would vote against the proposal. Langley pointed out that because minorities may up only about 27% of the voters that doubling the number of vote each voter could cast would double the total number of white votes by a factor of 3:1 against blacks. "That's just common sense ..." he said (that the proposal would be creating more white votes than black votes. Commissioner Al Klemm favored the proposed change. Stan Deatherage supported change but was not willing to spend a large amount of money to simply add one more vote in alternate elections. He wanted a budget and some support for change form the black community.

    Commissioner Hood Richardson requested copies of the data used by Professor Modlin from which his conclusions were drawn. Richardson indicated that he could support change provided an acceptable budget was presented and a written agreement were to be reached with the parties to the lawsuit that led to limited voting as to what changes they would support. Richardson's opinion is the proposed change is only a token and was not going to be worth his estimated cost of $400,000.

    Opening up the process to the various demographic and statistical studies, US Justice Department examinations, and interest groups of all kinds could produce results that neither black nor white voters would like. Even if terms could be agreed to by the parties to the original law suit there is no guarantee that any other interest group could not object to proposed changes and put the entire process at the risk of great expense. Richardson noted that the Federal judge would not be bound to just accept or reject the proposed change but could impose something we have no vision of now.

    While this process has been enthusiastically pursed by Commissioner Brinn and his political supporters there is little evidence of a ground swell of activists who demand a change in the way voters select commissioners in Beaufort County. There were less than a half dozen citizens in attendance for the public hearing. There were allegations during the meeting that the whole purpose of the proposed change was so conservative commissioners Richardson and Deatherage would stand less chance of being elected. Ed Booth, with tongue in cheek, asserted that if Hood Richardson were to die the entire issue would disappear.

    As the debate progressed it became apparent that Brinn did not have the four required votes to proceed with his proposed change and he asked that his motion be tabled pending the production of additional information. There was talk of creating another study committee which would include two attorneys, one being Democrat and one Republican. So what started as a show that Commissioner Brinn was fulfilling his campaign promises has come down to a slightly modified limited voting system when keeps the same basic system intact.

    The video below contains the discussion of the issue in Monday's meeting:

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