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Group asks Northampton Commissioners to consider changing the method in which they are elected

JACKSON – A group of Northampton County citizens are asking its Board of Commissioners to consider changing the current method of electing the five members of that body of local government leadership.

In a March 1 letter hand-delivered to the office of County Manager Charles Jackson, Northampton Citizens United (NCU) urged the commissioners to adopt a resolution for “pure district county commissioner elections and decennial census redistricting to the guarantee of our constitutional right to one person one vote.”

Northampton County currently uses a district at-large method to elect each of its five commissioners. That method requires a candidate seeking a seat on that board to have a permanent residence within their district, but voting for that candidate is done countywide.

A pure district style of election still requires the candidate to reside in the district, but only the registered voters of that district cast ballots for that particular race.

NCU contends that a major shift in the county’s population to the western end has occurred since the last time the five commissioner districts were redrawn sometime in the 1960’s.

“The purpose of this necessary request is to ensure a fair and equitable voting process by correcting the gross inequities in population representation and registered voters within the current five commissioner districts,” said the letter, which was signed by NCU Chairman Wayne Jenkins and Vice Chairman Tim Hollowell.

Jenkins retired in 2013 after spending 13 years as the Northampton County Manager.

Hollowell, a Rich Square farmer, ran unsuccessfully last year in his bid for the District 2 Commission seat.

The letter contained the number of registered voters by district (as of May 19, 2019) and the percentage of voters per district per the county’s total.

Those numbers revealed that District 5 (Occoneechee,

Pleasant Hill and Gaston) has 5,658 registered voters (representing 43.1% of the county’s total).

The next most populated area of the county (District 1 – Conway/Pendleton/Severn/Newtown) is less than one-half of District 5. That district lists 2,129 registered voters (16.2% of the county’s total).

District 4 (Seaboard and Wiccacanee) has 2,072 registered voters (15.8%); District 2 (Rich Square area) lists 1,917 voters (14.6%), and District 3 (Jackson area) is the least populated with only 10.3 percent of the county’s registered voters (1,351).

“We believe that this issue is germane to ensuring that all citizens of our great county have an equal opportunity to be heard on various issues and that equity is established and maintained through the democratic process that has been granted to each of us by the United States Constitution,” the letter stated.

It pointed out that several counties in the eastern region of the state elect their commissioners by the pure district method, to include Warren, Vance, Edgecombe, Nash, Wilson and Chowan. Halifax County uses a hybrid district (three at-large; three by pure district) method to elect its six commissioners.

In its resolution for the current Northampton Commissioners to consider, NCU said “a county board of commissioners needs to redraw its election district lines after the 2020 decennial census if (a) the board uses true election districts, or if (b) the districts are substantially unequal in representation.”

It further requests that the Northampton Commissioners “adopt a resolution to support Redistricting and Pure District election of county commissioners.”

The letter added, “We further request that the Northampton County Board of Commissioners calendar this matter at its next meeting in March or first meeting in April 2021 and provide county residents [a] representative voice through public comments per Open Meetings guidelines.”

Citing “The Very Basics on County Redistricting” from the annual conference of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners held Aug. 6, 2020, “Districts should be drawn so that population is as nearly equal as practicable. The accepted rule of thumb for local governments is that there should be no more than a ten percent overall deviation from the ideal. If the 2020 census shows that the board’s existing districts already are within the ten percent overall deviation range, there is no need to redistrict.”

That report also noted, “no change in the boundaries of a district will affect the unexpired term of a commissioner residing in the district and serving on the board on the effective date of the resolution.”

“Upon adoption of the enclosed resolution, we request you forward to [NC House] Representative Michael H. Wray, and [NC] Senator Ernestine Bazemore, our NCGA [North Carolina General Assembly] delegation members, for bill draft, and the Northampton County Board of Elections for referendum,” the letter added.

NCU is currently circulating a petition calling for the Northampton Commissioners to approve a resolution for statutory redistricting in the county following the 2020 decennial census, pursuant to guidance from the NC Association of County Commissioners per their annual conference.

As of March 3, that petition contained over 1,270 signatures of registered voters in the county.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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