Party Politics in Local Government

by | Jun 18, 2018 | Features, NC Political Geography | 1 comment

When we discuss “red states” and “blue states” – or, in North Carolina politics, “red counties and “blue counties” – we often consider only the results of the most recent presidential, congressional, or gubernatorial elections. However, local elections can provide just as much insight into the long-term political trends and true partisan leanings of a given area. In this article, we’ll be examining partisan politics in North Carolina as expressed through elections for county offices.

The North Carolina Constitution of 1868 established seven offices to be elected among the residents of each county – the Board of Commissioners, Register of Deeds, Clerk of Superior Court, Sheriff, Coroner, Treasurer, and Surveyor. Since then, all counties have eliminated the office of Surveyor, and all but a few have abolished elections for Coroner and Treasurer. However, all counties now also elect Boards of Education for their public school districts, as well as supervisors for their county Soil and Water Conservation Districts. In addition, one county contains a sanitary district with elected commissioners (many such districts exist on the municipal and communal levels).

The central governing body of a North Carolina county is its Board of Commissioners. Boards vary substantially in size, term length, and system of election, although structural changes can only be made by the General Assembly or through popular referendum. Currently, all Boards of Commissioners are composed of five to nine members – many small counties originally had three-member boards, although Clay County became the last to switch from three to five in a 2012 referendum. The map below displays the current size of each county’s Board of Commissioners:

While most counties have five-member boards, those with larger populations (including seven of the state’s most populous ten) tend to opt for a larger size. However, only four counties have nine-member boards, including two of the state’s largest counties (Mecklenburg and Guilford), one fairly large county (Pitt), and one rural county (Bladen). Seven-member boards are more popular in eastern North Carolina, while five-member boards dominate in western counties. Almost all counties have an odd number of commissioners in order to avoid ties when voting – the three exceptions are Robeson with eight commissioners, Halifax with six, and Perquimans, also with six.

All counties elect commissioners in partisan elections held in the November of even-numbered years. Most counties elect commissioners to four-year terms staggered between the presidential and midterm cycles, while some elect commissioners to four-year terms all at once, others elect commissioners to a combination of two-year and staggered four-year terms, and one (Mecklenburg) elects all commissioners to two-year terms. The method by which commissioners are elected also varies from county to county, with some electing commissioners at-large, some electing commissioners from districts, and others using a combination of the two.

As with federal and statewide politics in North Carolina, Democrats dominated in nearly all commissioner races until the 1970s, controlling eighty-six county boards and holding 83% of all seats after the 1974 midterm elections. However, the following decades saw Republican strength surge as North Carolina became a truly two-party state, and the GOP ultimately captured a majority of county boards in 2012.

Today, Republicans hold fifty-six county Boards of Commissioners, while Democrats hold forty-four. In total, 324 commission seats statewide are in GOP hands, while 254 are held by Democrats and five are held by unaffiliated voters. The following map displays the majority party on each county Board of Commissioners, with the shading indicating the percentage of board seats held by the majority party:

This map looks a lot like federal and statewide elections in North Carolina did in the 1990s and early 2000s, indicating that partisan trends in local elections tend to occur much more slowly. Democrats dominate in the rural counties of eastern North Carolina, where a coalition of African American voters and white, ancestrally Democratic voters have long propelled Democratic candidates to victory. Recent years have seen the white, rural voters of eastern North Carolina become much more Republican in polarizing federal and statewide contests, although the demographic is still strongly Democratic in local races. Today, Democrats control a near-continuous belt of counties stretching from Pasquotank in the Tidewater to Anson in the Sandhills, with only a few exceptions: Sampson and Wayne, which have unique histories of GOP strength, Bladen, Nash, and Person, which have only recently flipped, and, of course, the coastal counties.

Coastal North Carolina was also historically Democratic but has experienced a much more rapid shift to the GOP, largely due to the recent influx of conservative, predominantly white retirees. Counties on the Outer Banks, Pamlico Sound, and Lower Cape Fear are now overwhelmingly Republican, ending decades of Democratic tradition. The only county on the Outer Banks with a majority-Democratic board is the rural Hyde (pop. 5,630), which is home to the liberal enclave of Ocracoke Island and a large African American population inland.

North Carolina’s three large metropolitan areas – the Research Triangle, the Piedmont Triad, and the Charlotte metro – each have distinct political identities evident in the political leanings of their commissioners. The core counties of the Triangle (Wake, Durham, and Orange) are among the most Democratic in the state, each with unanimously Democratic boards. The counties directly southwest of the Triangle (Chatham and Lee) are also diverse and strongly Democratic on the local level, whereas the predominantly white, exurban-to-rural counties on the southern periphery of the region (Johnston, Harnett, and Moore) are heavily Republican.

Looking at the Charlotte metro, Mecklenburg County itself is strongly Democratic, although the large, exurban counties surrounding the city (Union, Cabarrus, Rowan, Iredell, and Gaston) and the smaller counties in the region (Lincoln and Stanly) each have unanimously Republican boards. In the Piedmont Triad, however, even the Democratic strongholds of Guilford and Forsyth have boards with slight Republican majorities – this is largely due to gerrymandering imposed by the General Assembly, with both counties electing commissioners from maps that pack Democrats into few districts in order to ensure GOP control. The exurban and rural counties surrounding the Triad’s urban centers are among the most Republican in the state, with all but Alamance having elected completely Republican boards.

West of Charlotte and the Piedmont Triad, the Foothills region has a strong Republican tradition that continues today. Most Foothills counties have unanimously Republican boards, and even the region’s three most Democratic counties (Alleghany, Cleveland, and Polk) have large GOP majorities. In the Blue Ridge Mountains, however, Democrats are much stronger – Buncombe (home to Asheville) and Watauga (home to Boone) have Democratic majorities, and four of the region’s five rural counties with distinctly Democratic traditions (Yancey, Madison, Haywood, Swain, and Jackson) are under Democratic control. Republicans, meanwhile, perform best in their two strongest counties statewide (Mitchell and Avery), the exurban counties below Asheville (Henderson and Transylvania), and the four rural counties in the state’s southwestern corner (Macon, Clay, Graham, and Cherokee).

The next group of county officeholders we’ll look at are the Registers of Deeds, responsible for recording and managing public records (real estate documents, vital records, discharge certificates, etc.) in their respective counties. As county offices established by the Constitution of 1868, all one hundred Registers of Deeds are elected to four-year terms in partisan elections held in the November of even-numbered years. Seventy-six Registers of Deeds are elected in presidential election years, while the other twenty-four are elected in midterm election years. The following map displays the partisan affiliation of the elected Register of Deeds in each North Carolina county:

Sixty Registers of Deeds are Democrats, while forty are Republicans. Like the previous map displaying partisan control of county Boards of Commissioners, this map looks a lot like federal and statewide elections did in decades past, suggesting that partisan trends in local elections tend to lag behind. The most notable phenomenon is the Democratic dominance in rural areas – other than the Foothills, the coast, and the exurbs around Charlotte and the Triad, Democrats are elected almost everywhere.

In eastern North Carolina, Harnett, Bladen, Sampson, Wayne, Craven, Pamlico, Nash, Person, and even Dare have Democratic Registers of Deeds, despite GOP control of the Boards of Commissioners in those counties. In the western Piedmont, Guilford and Forsyth have elected Democrats, which comes as no surprise given that the General Assembly cannot gerrymander at-large county offices. However, a few counties in western North Carolina are a lot more surprising – Ashe, Surry, Clay, Macon, and Transylvania each have elected Democrats, despite the strong Republican tendencies of those counties in other elections. Jackson and Alleghany are also home to Democratic Registers of Deeds despite their GOP-controlled Boards of Commissioners, although the Democratic tradition of both counties makes such a situation unsurprising.

Notably, two counties – Watauga and Wake – have GOP Registers of Deeds despite Democratic majorities on their Boards of Commissioners. Recent decades have seen both counties shift from Republican to Democratic in polarizing federal and statewide contests, and as with the trends described above, local elections tend to lag behind. If the Board of Commissioners map was a blast from the past of Democratic dominance in rural North Carolina and Republican support in urban counties, the Register of Deeds map is a blast from even further past.

Next up are the Clerks of Superior Court, responsible for managing a number of legal matters (the probate process, estate administration, adoptions, incompetency proceedings, property condemnations, foreclosures, court records, court fines and fees, etc.) in their respective counties. As county offices established by the Constitution of 1868, all one hundred Clerks of Superior Court are elected to four-year terms in partisan elections held in the November of midterm election years (most recently 2014). Although clerks are now managed by the statewide judicial system, they are still elected by and serve the residents of their individual counties. The following map displays the partisan affiliation of the elected Clerk of Superior Court in each county:

Sixty-three Clerks of Superior Court are Democrats, while thirty-seven are Republicans. As with the Register of Deeds map, Democrats dominate in urban areas and their traditional strongholds of rural eastern North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Mountains, despite the recent Republican trend of those regions in polarizing federal and statewide contests. The GOP, meanwhile, still performs best in the Foothills, on the coast, and in the exurban areas around Charlotte and the Triad.

Notably, many counties with fading Democratic traditions in the Blue Ridge Mountains (Graham, Macon), the Foothills (Polk, Cleveland, Alleghany), the Triad exurbs (Rockingham), and the coast (Camden) still have Democratic Clerks of Superior Court, evidence of rural Democrats’ continued strength in local races despite federal and statewide trends. Moreover, a number of outright Republican counties in the Foothills (Burke, Caldwell, Alexander) and the Charlotte exurbs (Rowan) also have Democratic clerks, demonstrating the party’s apparent overall strength in elections for this office. However, Republicans do have elected clerks in a few typically Democratic counties, including Sampson and Lenoir in eastern North Carolina and Wake in the Triangle.

Only one more of the county offices established by the Constitution of 1868 is still elected in every county – the sheriff. All sheriffs are elected to four-year terms in partisan elections held in the November of midterm election years, with the most recent sheriff elections having taken place in 2014. The following map displays the partisan affiliation of the elected sheriff in each county:

Fifty-two sheriffs are Democrats, while forty-eight are Republicans. Although this map is similar to the ones we’ve analyzed so far, there are notably more discrepancies. A number of typically Republican counties on the coast (Camden, Currituck, New Hanover) have Democratic sheriffs, and quite a few typically Democratic counties on the Coastal Plain and Sandhills (Jones, Nash, Wayne, Sampson, Bladen, Lee, Scotland, Montgomery) have elected Republicans. Moreover, three counties with major urban centers (Wake, Guilford, Forsyth) have Republican sheriffs despite their overall Democratic tendencies, while two exurban counties in the Charlotte metro area (Cabarrus, Gaston) have Democratic sheriffs despite their loyalty to the GOP. Finally, four strongly Republican counties in the Foothills (Surry, Ashe, Alexander, Burke) have Democratic sheriffs, while two traditionally Democratic counties in the Blue Ridge Mountains (Yancey, Swain) have elected Republicans. These discrepancies suggest that voters are more likely to cross party lines in races for sheriff than in the others analyzed so far, despite the partisan nature of the elections.

The next elected county office established by the Constitution of 1868 is that of the coroner, responsible for investigating violent, suspicious, or unexplained deaths. Although all counties once elected coroners, the General Assembly has since opted to abolish the office in most counties, allowing appointed medical examiners to investigate deaths instead. As with the other constitutional county officeholders, the remaining coroners are elected to four-year terms in partisan elections held in the November of even-numbered years. Six counties (Bladen, Caswell, Cleveland, Columbus, Hoke, and Yadkin) elected coroners in 2014 and one county (Avery) elected a coroner in 2016, suggesting that seven counties total have elected coroners as of the most recent election cycle. However, the General Assembly has since passed legislation abolishing the position in Caswell, Cleveland, and Columbus counties, meaning that only four elected coroners will remain as the next election cycle proceeds. The following map displays the political affiliation of the seven county coroners elected in 2014 and 2016:

Among the coroners elected in 2014 and 2016 were four Democrats and three Republicans. The four counties with Democratic coroners (Bladen, Caswell, Columbus, and Hoke) are each strongly Democratic in local elections, while the three Republican coroners came from one competitive county (Cleveland) and two strongly Republican counties (Avery and Yadkin).

Two more elected county offices were established by the Constitution of 1868: the surveyor and the treasurer. However, all counties have since abolished the office of surveyor, and all but one have abolished the office of treasurer as well. The exception, Haywood County, continues to elect its treasurer (known as the tax collector) in partisan elections held in the November of midterm election years. A rather modest map:

Haywood’s tax collector, unlike most local officials in the county, is a Republican.

North Carolinians were given the right to directly elect Boards of Education for their public school districts in 1967, when the General Assembly modified an earlier system in which legislators appointed school board members from pools of publicly-nominated candidates. Today, North Carolina has one hundred and fifteen public school districts – one for each of the state’s one hundred counties, and an additional fifteen operating on the municipal level.

Members of two of the municipal school districts (Asheville and Thomasville) are appointed by their respective city councils, while the remaining one hundred and thirteen Boards of Education are elected directly by voters. The structures and election processes of Boards of Education vary considerably –board sizes range from five to eleven members, term lengths range from two to six years, and election schedules range from the general election in even-numbered years to the primary election in even-numbered years to the general election in odd-numbered years.

Arguably the most important variation, however, is whether school board elections are partisan or nonpartisan. While most school boards have traditionally been elected in nonpartisan contests, the number of partisan elections has skyrocketed in recent years as the General Assembly seeks to associate candidates’ names with their political affiliations. This comes largely as an attempt to oust registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters from school boards in Republican counties, as voters are less likely to cross party lines if party designations appear on the ballot. Moreover, while unaffiliated voters go through the same process as registered Democrats and Republicans to gain ballot access in nonpartisan races, they must take the extra step of gathering signatures to appear on the ballot in partisan contests. This explains why unaffiliated voters are fairly common on nonpartisan school boards and relatively rare on partisan ones. The following map of the state’s one hundred and fifteen school districts displays which school boards are elected on a partisan basis and when their elections became partisan:

Thirty-five Boards of Education are now elected on a partisan basis, while seventy-eight are elected in nonpartisan races and the other two are appointed. The lightest shade of yellow indicates a school board became partisan before Republicans gained control of the General Assembly in 2011, the next darkest shade indicates a school board became partisan after 2011 and all school board members have since participated in a partisan election, the next darkest shade indicates a school board became partisan after 2011 but only some school board seats have since been up for election, and the darkest shade indicates a school board has become partisan but the first partisan elections have not yet taken place.

Now, let’s take a look at a map that displays the most common political affiliation on each school district’s Board of Education, with the shading indicating the percentage of board seats held by those with most common political affiliation:

Fifty-six school boards are plurality or majority Democratic (blue), while forty are plurality or majority Republican (red), four are plurality or majority Unaffiliated (green), thirteen are tied between two of the listed political affiliations (purple), and two are appointed (gray). Despite most boards still being elected on a nonpartisan basis, many of the political trends evident in the previously analyzed maps are also evident here. Democrats are strongest in urban centers, eastern North Carolina, and some areas of the Blue Ridge Mountains, while Republicans perform best in coastal counties, exurban counties around urban centers, the Foothills, and other areas of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Democratic-leaning counties with Republican school boards include Jones, Duplin, and Forsyth, while Republican-leaning counties with Democratic school boards include Dare, Rockingham, and Transylvania. Many Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning counties have school boards that are either tied or mostly Unaffiliated.

The final office elected by the voters of every North Carolina county is that of the Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor. Soil and Water Conservation Districts were first established in North Carolina in 1937, when the General Assembly passed a state version of national legislation intended to conserve vulnerable natural resources. The law provided for the formation of local conservation districts, ninety-six of which exist today – ninety-five counties each have one, and the other five counties (Chowan, Perquimans, Pasquotank, Camden, and Currituck) have a single, combined district.

Each Soil and Water Conservation District is governed by a five-member Board of Supervisors: three supervisors in each district are directly elected by the district’s voters, while two supervisors in each district are appointed by the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission. However, the combined district mentioned above does allow each of its five counties to elect three supervisors, meaning all one hundred counties in North Carolina elect three supervisors each. All supervisors are elected to four-year terms in nonpartisan elections, with two supervisors per county being elected in the November of midterm election years and one supervisor per county being elected in the November of presidential election years. The following map displays the most common partisan affiliation of each county’s three elected supervisors:

A dark shade of blue, red, or green indicates that all three elected supervisors are either Democrats, Republicans, or unaffiliated voters, while a medium shade indicates that two of the three elected supervisors are of the same partisan affiliation. In the latter case, the small, colored dot indicates the partisan affiliation of the third elected supervisor. Counties with one elected supervisor from each of the three affiliations, meanwhile, are shaded light purple, with three colored dots indicating the three affiliations. In total, forty-five counties have two or three Democratic elected supervisors, thirty-two counties have two or three Republican elected supervisors, nine counties have two or three Unaffiliated elected supervisors, and fourteen counties have one of each (Burke, while shaded purple, has one Democrat, one Republican, and one vacancy).

Although Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor elections are nonpartisan and generally apolitical, the map above is similar to others analyzed so far. Strongly Republican counties with Democratic elected supervisor majorities include Dare, Beaufort, Alamance, Rowan, Wilkes, and Clay, while strongly Democratic counties with Republican elected supervisor majorities include Hyde, Washington, Chowan, Lenoir, and Cumberland. As with school boards, many strongly Democratic and strongly Republican counties have school boards that are either tied or mostly Unaffiliated.

That’s it for the offices elected in every North Carolina county. However, one county, Cleveland, also has a countywide sanitary district with an elected Board of Commissioners (the other thirty-two elected sanitary district boards in North Carolina operate on the municipal or sub-county regional levels). Cleveland’s sanitary district board, known as the Water Board, consists of seven commissioners elected to staggered four-year terms in nonpartisan elections held in the November of odd-numbered years.

Among the Water Board’s commissioners are three registered Democrats, three unaffiliated voters, and one registered Republican.

In total, elected county officeholders in North Carolina include nine hundred and fifty-five Democrats, eight hundred and thirty-four Republicans, and one hundred and fifty-nine unaffiliated voters. Of course, these numbers change on a regular basis, as officeholder vacancies, replacements, and party changes are common. The following map displays the political affiliation of the majority of elected officeholders in each county, with the shading indicating the percentage of seats held by the majority party:

And, finally, a map of which counties have elected officeholders from multiple political affiliations, as opposed to only Democratic or only Republican:

That’s ninety-four counties, out of one hundred in North Carolina. We live in a purple state.

For more information on politics in individual North Carolina counties, please take a look at our county profile series.

1 Comment

  1. walt de vries, ph.d.

    Darren: Impressive and comprehensive research. Congratulations on documenting that North Carolina is really a purple state.

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