North Carolina voters participate in elections for nine countywide offices – Boards of Commissioners, Registers of Deeds, Sheriffs, Clerks of Superior Court, Coroners, Treasurers, Boards of Education, Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors, and Sanitary District Supervisors. Of these, Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors and Sanitary District Supervisors are elected in nonpartisan elections, as are most (but not all) Boards of Education. This article takes a look at the 2018 election results for the six countywide offices elected wholly on a partisan basis – Boards of Commissioners, Registers of Deeds, Sheriffs, Clerks of Superior Court, Coroners, and Treasurers.
First up are the Boards of Commissioners. All counties have boards of five to nine commissioners, and while some counties elect all of their commissioners to aligned two-year or four-year terms, most counties stagger elections to four-year terms between the presidential and midterm cycles. Thus, most counties elected around half of their commissioners this year, with the other half having most recently been elected in 2016.
The following map displays the majority party of each Board of Commissioners and whether the majority party changed as a result of the 2018 elections:
Republican Hold (53)
Republican Gain (4)
Democratic Hold (39)
Democratic Gain (2)
Tied Control Gain (2)
Republicans gained four boards from Democrats (Duplin, Haywood, Lee, Yancey), while Democrats gained two from Republicans (Jackson, New Hanover). In addition, two boards previously under Democratic control are now tied between the two major parties (Chowan, Hyde). Note that this compilation considers the party affiliation of each commissioner at the time of their most recent election and does not account for party affiliation changes or vacancy replacements that have occurred since then. For example, while a majority of commissioners in Bladen County were most recently elected as Democrats, most are now registered Republicans. And in Duplin County, this year saw the board flip from consisting mostly of commissioners elected as Democrats to consisting mostly of commissioners elected as Republicans, although a majority of commissioners were already registered Republicans as of last year.
The overarching theme of this year’s elections was the widening urban-rural divide – Republicans gained wholly in rural counties, while Democrats gained in larger, suburban counties with substantial college student populations. Republicans can claim victory in having increased their control from fifty-five to fifty-seven boards, but Democrats can claim victory in having increased the proportion of North Carolinians living in counties with Democratic-controlled boards – New Hanover County, which flipped Democratic, has a larger population than all of the counties that flipped Republican combined.
Another notable trend was the emergence of third-party commissioners. Before 2018, all five hundred and eighty-three commissioners in North Carolina were either Republicans, Democrats, or unaffiliated voters. However, this year saw a Libertarian candidate win an uncontested seat in Perquimans County and a Constitution Party candidate defeat a Democrat for a seat in Greene County.
The situation in Perquimans epitomizes the extent to which local elections in rural counties are seldom competitive, while the situation in Greene further demonstrates how toxic the Democratic brand has become in rural areas. Indeed, while all other commissioners in Greene County are Democrats, none have faced opposition in their most recent general elections. Had they faced opponents from other parties, Greene’s board might have no Democrats at all. Continued Democratic dominance in the predominantly white areas of eastern North Carolina is due not to the party’s popularity, but rather general unwillingness to challenge Democratic incumbents. If a third party can defeat a Democrat simply by appearing on the ballot, Republicans can easily flip ten or so rural county boards simply by running candidates of their own.
The following map displays the proportion of seats on each board held by the majority party as a result of this year’s elections. A darker shade indicates a larger proportion of each board identifying with the majority party. Many boards are shaded >90%, indicating all commissioners identify with the same party:
Next up are county Registers of Deeds. All counties elect their Register of Deeds every four years, but only twenty-four were up in 2018 (the other seventy-six run during presidential cycles, most recently 2016). The following map displays party control of each county’s Register of Deeds as a result of this year’s elections:
Democratic Hold (58)
Democratic Gain (0)
Republican Hold (40)
Republican Gain (2)
Republicans made gains in two counties (Clay and Dare), although Democrats maintain a majority statewide. Had all one hundred counties had elections for Registers of Deeds this year, more counties likely would have flipped – again, urban and suburban counties to the Democrats and rural counties to the Republicans.
Next up are county Sheriffs. All one hundred ran for four-year terms this year:
Republican Hold (45)
Republican Gain (9)
Democratic Hold (43)
Democratic Gain (3)
For the first time in over a century, a majority of the one hundred county sheriffs in North Carolina are Republicans. However, the proportion of North Carolinians represented by Republican sheriffs actually decreased – Democrats gained sheriffs in the second, third, and fourth largest counties in North Carolina (Wake, Guilford, and Forsyth), far outweighing the proportion of North Carolinians in the nine smaller counties Republicans gained. This situation epitomizes each party’s viewpoint going into future local elections. Republican gains in North Carolina’s many rural counties will increase the proportion of counties they control, while Democratic gains in North Carolina’s few large counties will increase the proportion of residents they represent.
Next up are county Clerks of Superior Court. Again, all one hundred ran for four-year terms this year.
Democratic Hold (62)
Democratic Gain (1)
Republican Hold (36)
Republican Gain (1)
Republicans gained one rural county (Caldwell), while Democrats gained one urban county (Wake). While the proportion of counties represented by each party was unchanged, the proportion of North Carolinians represented by a Democratic clerk increased substantially, as the population of Wake far surpasses that of Caldwell.
Next up are county coroners. Although all counties once elected coroners, ninety-six have since abolished the antiquated position. Only four counties still elect coroners, three of which were up for a four-year term this year (Avery County elects its coroner during the presidential cycle).
Democratic Hold (2)
Democratic Gain (0)
Republican Hold (2)
Republican Gain (0)
Finally only one county – Haywood – still elects a Treasurer. The officeholder, known locally as the tax collector, is elected to a four-year term during midterm cycles.
Democratic Hold (0)
Democratic Gain (1)
Republican Hold (0)
Republican Gain (0)
Haywood elected a Democrat to replace the incumbent Republican.
Whether North Carolina’s local elections followed the national trend of a “Blue Wave” this year is debatable – the proportion of North Carolinians represented by Democrats increased due to Democratic gains in urban and suburban areas, while the proportion of counties represented by Republicans increased due to Republican gains in rural areas. One thing, however, is certain – our state’s urban-rural divide will continue to widen, becoming the defining feature of politics in North Carolina.