"Can we offer you a Democratic ballot?" asked a party volunteer who was marinating in the rain outside a Carrboro polling place.
"Absolutely. That's what we want," replied the young man, dashing across the sidewalk, his hand outstretched.
While Democrats did what they always do in Orange County—win—the wildcard in the 2006 election was the districting referendum. The measure, which passed overwhelmingly, will expand the number of commissioners from five to seven and meld district voting with the current at-large system. District 1, encompassing Carrboro and Chapel Hill and their respective fringes, will have three seats; District 2, with two seats, will cover the rest of the county. Two at-large seats will round out the commission.
Some rural voters, concerned they had a weak voice on the commission because of Chapel Hill and Carrboro's dominance, had been lobbying for the change for more than a decade, but it had stalled in study committees and at the commission. (See "Fault lines," Oct. 18, 2006.) Opponents of the plan argued that at-large voting served the non-urban vote and that the ruckus drowned out the real agenda to elect pro-sprawl, anti-spending candidates.
"I'm shocked that it passed," said former commissioner Margaret Brown, who opposed the referendum. "I think it will be a very, very different board. People who have relied on the commissioners to protect schools, the environment and social services funding are probably not going to have near the alliances they once had."
More than 80 percent of voters cast a ballot on the referendum question, but bulky wording or a lack of awareness might have deterred some from filling in an oval. In Efland, a northwestern hamlet near the Alamance-Orange County line where President George W. Bush won 57 percent of the vote in 2004, Paul Falduto said few voters were discussing the referendum. "Two out of three don't know about it, but I think it will pass," said Falduto, the Democratic precinct vice chairman, standing outside Gaines Chapel A.M.E. Church. It passed with 77 percent of the vote there.
In West Hillsborough, a largely African-American precinct, former Hillsborough town council member Ken Chavious distributed Democratic ballots to voters. "I hope it flies," said Chavious. "I don't know why it's so difficult to understand why we want representation."
Several days after the election, Hillsborough resident and Commissioner Barry Jacobs reflected on the outcome.
"We're all surprised at how well it did," said Jacobs, who placed a close second for three seats to win his third term. "I still think there are things we could look at as a government, maybe not spring them on people, but I think we ought to talk more about cumulative voting."
While Democrats have long held power in Orange County—Republican candidate Jamie Daniel won just one of 47 precincts, Caldwell—the referendum could change the political face of the commission. Cumulative voting, in which voters cast not one ballot, but as many as there are seats, could open the commission to minor parties as well.
"One of the underlying thrusts was to get Republicans on the commission," Jacobs said. "As long as we're opening doors for variety, we need to think about opening them wider."
Yet, not every Orange County voter was dwelling on the minutiae of district lines. A man left the Colonial Hills precinct in northern Chapel Hill, with an "I voted" sticker on his forefinger. As for the referendum, "It was the least of my concerns," he said, and ran into the rain.