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Proposed changes to Macon County’s election process filed in General Assembly

North Carolina Senator Kevin Corbin and Representative Karl Gillespie have taken legislative steps in response to a local resolution by Macon County commissioners.  Senate Bill 903 and House Bill 1060, companion bills have both passed both readings and were referred to committees. The resolution, introduced by Commissioner John Shearl, seeks to alter the election format for county commissioners to include two at-large seats in addition to district representatives. This change, championed by Commissioner Paul Higdon, has reignited discussions on electoral equity and public engagement in local governance.

During the November meeting, the Macon County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution advocating for a review of their election system, with Shearl emphasizing the request was for consideration rather than direct action. Yet, the forwarded resolution explicitly proposed a mixed model of district and at-large representation, reflecting a long-standing interest by Chairman Higdon who noted, “This has been something I’ve talked about for a number of years.”

Currently, Macon County elects its five-member board from three districts, with uneven opportunities for candidates to run due to staggered terms. District two, for example, offers potential candidates a chance every two years, while those in districts one and three must wait four years. The resolution argues that a new system with one member from each district and two at-large could provide a fairer platform for all eligible citizens to participate in the electoral process biennially.

However, the move has not been without its detractors. Commissioner Gary Shields expressed reservations about changing a system that has been in place for over four decades, while Commissioner Josh Young highlighted the need for greater public input before any legislative actions are taken.

The proposal aligns with North Carolina’s flexible county governance laws, which allow changes through local bills or public referendums. Despite the current legislative initiative, the ultimate decision could still involve a public referendum, offering Macon County residents the final say in how their leaders are chosen. North Carolina allows the composition of the board to be changed by one of two ways. The method Shearl proposed, to petition state representatives to change the board via a local bill, or the second option, for the board to pass a resolution to call a special referendum on the question of adoption of the alterations. The referendum would be held and conducted by the county Board of Elections.

“Before we print a bill and send it to Raleigh, I feel like it’s my duty to at least ask for public involvement,” Commissioner Josh Young stated, advocating for a process that ensures broad-based community engagement.

The push for change in Macon County opens up broader questions about representation, fairness, and public participation in local government across North Carolina.

Since 1978, the five-member board in Macon County has been elected from three districts. District one comprises Ellijay, Flats, Highlands, and Sugarfork, with one member elected. District three includes Burningtown, Cartoogechaye, Cowee, and Nantahala, also electing one member District two encompasses Iotla, Millshoal, North Franklin, East Franklin, South Franklin, Union, and Smithbridge, electing three members with staggered terms.

North Carolina law requires that “if a county is divided into electoral districts for the purpose of nominating or electing persons to the board of commissioners, the board of commissioners may find as a fact whether there is substantial inequality of population among districts and if the board finds that there is a substantial inequality of population among the district, it may be resolution redefine the electoral districts.”

Because the electoral districts in Macon County are currently split to give two representatives to the Franklin district because of its larger population, eliminating the second representative seat would likely force a redistricting since North Carolina law also states, “redefined electoral districts shall be so drawn that the quotients obtained by dividing the population of each district by the number of commissioners apportioned to the district are as nearly equal as practicable, and each district shall be composed of territory within a continuous boundary.”

According to the 2020 census, Macon County had a population of 37,014. For the 3 electoral districts to be equally, each district line would need to be drawn to include 12,338 residents. As it stands, District one, which includes Highlands, Flats, Sugarfork, and Elijay is comprised of 7,297. In order to get closer to the “equal” number of residents of 12,000, Highlands would need to add 5,041 residents who have historically been within the Franklin area district. Expanding that district will further dilute the representation for Highlands residents, who make up over 50% of the county’s tax base but would have virtually no representation. Because the law requires that redistricting keeps voting districts continuous, the District one could look at adding Millshoal and a piece of either Cowee, Iotla, or East Franklin, or a combo of any of the three.

District three, which includes Nantahala, Burningtown, Cowee and Cartoogechaye is currently at a population of 6,837 meaning they would nearly have to double their geographical area to reach 12,338, again adding in voters who had historically within the Franklin District. The move would result in the more rural areas of the county such as Nantahala and Burningtown, losing representation and having less of a voice on the county level. To meet the 12,338 that would be needed for even districts, District three would most likely look at adding Smithbridge.

If District two were to lose Millshoal to District one and Smithbridge to District three, the population would be 15,700, leaving the remaining District two precincts to be divided out to reach 12,338.

The two other seats on the county board of commissioners would then be considered “at large” seats and could have representatives from any area of the county.

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