The Case for At-Large Seats – Fayetteville City Council

Recently, our City Council made it more difficult to run for City Council by increasing filing fees five-fold. It used to be $24 to run. It’s now $170. The result of this change was that fewer people ran for City Council in 2019. Big surprise. In fact, four of our current nine City Council members are unopposed this year.

We had a primary yesterday for two of the “opposed” seats, and turnout was abysmal:

This post proposes a change that I believe will encourage community involvement in these elections and bridge divides in our city and its government. But first, I have to take you to school:

History Lesson (2007)

In 2007, I was a 1L at Campbell Law, and you could still get the Fayetteville Observer in print at the Buies Creek Short Stop. I remember reading about a movement in Fayetteville to change our City Council from 9 individual district seats to 6 individual district seats and 3 “at large” seats. The idea was that the at-large seats would reflect the interests of Fayetteville “as a whole.” The term “mini-mayors” was thrown around. The new council would be a blend of neighborhood and city-wide interests. Supporters said it would help bring Fayetteville together and allow for greater consensus. Those opposed argued that the plan was an attempt to dilute minority power on the council.

In 2007, Cumberland County was a “covered county” under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. We received that special treatment in 1965 due to our past history of minority voter suppression. As a result of being a “covered county,” any proposed change to our City Council’s makeup had to get “preclearance” from the United States Justice Department to ensure that the new plan did not impair the ability of minorities to get elected.

The United States Justice Department looked at the proposed plan and quickly shot it down, arguing that the plan “retrograded” the ability of minorities to get elected on the council. The Department used the failure of African American candidates in past “at-large” elections and the ouster of Mayor Marshall Pitts in a “racially polarized” election in 2005 to support its position:

Here’s the Justice Department’s letter to Fayetteville if you want to read it in full:

Once the Justice Department made its voice heard, the idea of at-large seats fell by the way-side.

Shelby County Decision

In 2013, the United States Supreme Court held in the case of Shelby County v. Holder that the “preclearance” requirement was unconstitutional. Why? It was out-dated. It used data from the 1960’s:

A statute’s “current burdens” must be justified by “current needs,” and any “disparate geographic coverage” must be “sufficiently related to the problem that it targets.” The coverage formula met that test in 1965, but no longer does so.

Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices. The formula captures States by reference to literacy tests and low voter registration and turnout in the 1960s and early 1970s. But such tests have been banned nationwide for over 40 years. And voter registration and turnout numbers in the covered States have risen dramatically in the years since. Racial disparity in those numbers was compelling evidence justifying the preclearance remedy and the coverage formula. There is no longer such a disparity.

– Chief Justice John Roberts, Writing for the 5-4 Majority in Shelby County

In the end, you still can’t violate the Voting Rights Act, but you don’t have to go to the Justice Department to get permission whenever you want to make a change to your system of local government.

In order to successfully challenge a change to a voting system, you need current data to prove that the change will result in a retrogression of minority representation. In short, will the racial makeup of your elected body change if you make the changes you want to make? If not, you’re probably good to go.

Are you seeing where I’m going with this? Keep reading.

Current State of Fayetteville Politics

Prior to the ouster of Tyrone Williams, our City Council had 5 minority members out of 9, and it will most likely be that way after November’s election. I don’t think this makeup will change in any significant way with at-large seats. Why? Fayetteville politics have changed a lot since 2007.

Look at our judicial elections as of late. Cheri Siler-Mack, April Smith and Stephen Stokes are African Americans that have dominated recent county-wide judicial races.

In addition, look at Mayor Mitch Colvin. He took out incumbent Nat Robertson with over 59% of the vote. It was a landslide. Colvin’s so strong city-wide that he’s not even being challenged in 2019.

Finally, Cumberland County currently has two “at-large” seats on its County Commission. One is an African American. One is white. Seems to be working out o.k., doesn’t it?

As you can see, this isn’t 1965, or even 2007. It’s easily argued that it’s an advantage, and certainly no disadvantage to be a minority in a city-wide election in Fayetteville in 2019.

The Case for At-Large Seats

Fayetteville’s number one problem from my perspective is that it’s a city of competing factions. Yes, some of these are racial factions, but our current City Council lines are adding to the problem. The current districts are not congruent at all. Look at District 4 for proof.

Council members have an incentive to look after “theirs” without regard to the needs of those in other districts or the city as a whole. As it stands today, the Mayor is currently the only decision-maker on Hay Street that is accountable to all of us.

Having some city-wide, “at large” seats would necessitate city-wide campaigns. Those seeking the seats would have to appeal to the needs of Fayetteville as a whole, campaign outside of their own neighborhoods, and develop ideas and platforms to bring the city’s voters together. The result, I think, would be more people participating in these elections and a less polarized Fayetteville.

In the end, it’s easier to bridge the divide when you represent both sides of Cross Creek.

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