Referendum time

by David Forbes July 28, 2017

City leaders place a referendum on district elections on the ballot — but they don’t want it to pass. Behind the state’s gerrymandering push, the latest item on the November ballots and the looming legal fight

Above: Proposed Asheville City Council districts under last year’s failed state Senate bill. A similar plan this year passed, over the objection of local elected officials, who are now countering with a referendum

On July 25 Asheville City Council voted unanimously to put a measure on the November ballot: should Asheville be divided into six districts for our Council elections?

They really, really don’t want it to pass.

That may sound strange: generally referendums are put forward by governing bodies wanting (or required) to get public sanction for a certain action. Asheville’s bond referendums last year are a perfect example.

But this one is a bit different. After a draft bill and a failed bill trying to gerrymander local elections over the past half-decade, the GOP-controlled state legislature, at the behest of Sen. Chuck Edwards, finally pushed through legislation directing Asheville to change to electing all its Council members from districts. Technically, the bill orders the Asheville City Council to adopt the districts no later than Nov. 1 through an independent commission set up in late August. But it does require that those districts be submitted to the state legislature and state that if the city fails to do so, the legislature will draw those districts anyway, so the result and intent are the same as before.

Why the referendum and why does Council want it to lose?

So far, the state legislature’s attempts to gerrymander local governments haven’t actually gone that well on the legal front. Federal courts struck down legislation doing so in both Wake County and Greensboro, ruling that they violated the principle of one person, one vote.

The Greensboro ruling is particularly significant as it also reversed the legislature’s ban on local referendums to change Greensboro’s election system, and it reversed it hard: finding that the rule singled out the people of that city, took away their democratic rights and lacked any legitimate government purpose.

So if Ashevillians deliver a resounding “no” on the referendum, it gives the city a pretty strong position to go into court and say “the people of our city weighed in on this idea, and they rejected it.”

Will they?

That’s the question, of course. Currently all of Asheville’s local elected officials (six Council members and the mayor) are elected at-large, meaning any voter in the city gets to vote for all those positions. For example, in this year’s election, every voters gets to cast their ballot for the mayor and the three open Council seats if they choose.

There are a lot of arguments about the merits and flaws of a district system, and the fact that many Asheville City Council members of all political stripes come from the wealthy neighborhoods of North Asheville has been a source of resentment over the past decade.

However, that historically hasn’t mobilized into a push for district elections, though the idea was broached a few times before the idea of imposing it by legislative fiat became a conservative hail-Mary in recent years. Mostly that regional discontent manifested as candidates running in the current system trying to mobilize an area of town that felt under-represented. That led to, among other things, more Council members from West Asheville over the past decade and Chris Pelly’s 2011 election, partly based on his work pushing for more infrastructure and services in East Asheville.

Indeed, that dynamic was even apparent in the lead-up to this referendum as Council candidate Vijay Kapoor, who’s been active in South Asheville (the area state legislators claim they’re trying to secure more representation for) neighborhood organizing, harshly condemned the state legislature’s push to impose districts.

Polling on the topic, presented earlier this year, was incredibly mixed (simultaneously indicating some support for districts, a desire to put the matter to a referendum and strong support for the current system) partly because it’s a complicated topic to poll.

But given the lack of an organized local push for districts and the idea’s current association with a political party and legislature both deeply unpopular in Asheville Council believes, with good reason, that locals will reject the measure. But — like everything in politics — that’s a prediction, not a certainty.

How would districts impact racial equity in Asheville?

This is a big question that’s likely to come up during this election season, given Asheville’s massive and worsening racial equity issues. In some local government elections, districts have been used to increase minority representation.

That, however, depends on the city and it depends on the districts.

This actually happened in my hometown, Elizabeth City. There civil rights groups and left-leaning voters pressed for a district system while conservatives defended an at-large one. Eventually, the federal government ordered a shift to districts in the late ’80s.

But Asheville’s African-American community isn’t just concentrated in one part of town, but instead in several neighborhoods in different parts of the city. Under the current system, if black voters mobilize behind candidates they believe represents their interests, that can prove decisive. Indeed, there’s a good argument that happened in 2015, when African-American voter turnout ticked up and Keith Young’s election marked the end of two years of an all-white Council.

Depending on how districts are drawn in Asheville, they could disperse black voting power. Given the state legislature’s track record of using gerrymandering — including in its attempts to force changes to local election systems — to try to weaken African-American voters’ political clout, the odds are this would be no exception.

Why does this keep coming up?

Because Ashevillie’s conservatives (at least of the Republican and far-right variety, there’s plenty who’d argue that gentry Democrats back no shortage of their own reactionary policies) have done really, really badly in local elections. In 2015 three established conservative candidates, including a former Council member, mayor and city staffer were absolutely routed. None made it out of the primary despite no shortage of funding and extensive campaigning. That marked a collapse in local conservative electoral fortunes, part of a decade-long fight that saw them steadily lose ground to the local variety of “progressives” (basically an array of centrist and center-left Democrats, with the occasional more left-leaning type thrown in).

As their political clout dwindled, the idea of the state overhauling the city’s election system has grown in appeal for the remaining local conservatives too. They have their reasons: when the state forced the Buncombe County Commissioners to switch to district elections in 2011, it changed from an entirely Democratic board to one where the GOP holds three out of seven seats.

Given that those defeats only made the local right-wing double down on despising most of the city’s people (with candidates comparing the LGBT pride flag to the Nazi flag, for example) while resenting their refusal to give them the reins of government, a realignment that might revive their political fortunes isn’t in the cards. Given that the current state legislature sees absolutely no issue with treating electoral systems — including local ones — as its personal playground and given that they’ve taken the district-wrangling tendencies of their Democratic forebears to new depths of gerrymandering, forcing district elections is an appealing route.

While there’s no shortage of discontent with Council incumbents, the last election illuminated that in a left-leaning city that’s increasingly unlikely to work to conservatives’ advantage.

That means that Asheville is headed to the same place as Wake County and Greensboro: federal court. The referendum is the city’s first step along that route.

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