The existing system of electing county commissioners isn’t serving the people of Lincoln County very well. This is not to complain about the quality of the commissioners elected, but to question the validity and fairness of the process.
The 2010 race for commissioner in which eight Republican primary candidates competed for two spots, was an exercise in chaos. It resulted in a runoff in which the voting order changed — demonstrating the ability of a unified region like Denver to dominate the system. West Lincoln voters had the last laugh this year as a much less unified Denver never coalesced with strong enough support for any two candidates to put them over the top or force a second primary; three contenders who all live west of the county’s center ended up winning outright.
The public is not well-served by the free-for-all nature of these multi-seat elections nor the gamesmanship that often accompanies them behind the scenes. When one section or another of the county is able to dominate the process during a particular cycle, citizens of other areas are not getting any representatives of their choosing. Each portion of the county deserves fair representation according to its population.
To this end, the county should consider creating population-based districts. This would ensure equal representation for every citizen of Lincoln County.
Denver voters, who are more numerous, might be able to elect at least two board members. West Lincoln voters would probably have at least one commissioner, as would those from Lincolnton and surrounding areas. Meanwhile, the Ironton Township, the county’s second-most populous with the communities of Iron Station and Pumpkin Center as well as eastern portions of Lincolnton, would likely be able to elect its own commissioner, something the area currently lacks.
Slight variations on this plan are possible. If the board grew to seven or nine commissioners, one or two could be elected at-large. Smaller districts would ensure even more direct representation.
The result would also be less chaotic elections. Voters would cast a single vote for each seat and perhaps separately for an at-large candidate of their choice. District commissioners who feel passionately about the concerns of their own part of the county would not be out of line for representing their own constituents. Someone else would be addressing the concerns of others. People with policy concerns could go to their own district commissioners to seek assistance.
An option that should be avoided, however, is to adopt “representation districts,” as we currently have for the Lincolnton City Council and Lincoln County Board of Education. While these do prevent the chaos of multi-seat elections, they continue to allow one region or another to dictate the outcome of an election. The risk is that board members would reside in a district, but be beholden to voters in an entirely different area. As a result, the direct district election system makes more sense and is more democratic.
With a county that has rapidly evolved over the last two decades, it’s time to rethink a board election system that might have made sense years ago, but no longer offers the best arrangement for a more populous county with dramatic economic, geographic and demographic diversity.