The controversy over district voting fractured Chatham County by ideology and geography, politics and race. After more than a year of sniping, some of it voiced on the county's populist online venue, the Chatham Chatlist, the referendum to replace at-large voting with a district system was defeated by a 54-45 margin.
"I guess you guys can be proud that you finished the job," wrote a disappointed district voting supporter on the Chatlist last week.
In place since the late 1970s, at-large voting is largely credited with opening the political process to African Americans. District voting, referendum opponents charged, would undo that progress, although former Democratic Party chairwoman, Mary Nettles, who is black, disputed that claim, an indicator of how divisive the issue had become even within the African-American community. (See "Fault lines," Oct. 18, 2006.)
"It got ugly," said Delcenia Turner, an African-American opponent of district voting. "It's still ugly. The people who lost and really wanted this are angry."
The vote fell along geographic lines. As expected, precincts in the northern and northeastern parts of the county, which would have been underrepresented in the district system, voted heavily against the referendum. At Harpers Crossroads, in southwestern Chatham, 93 percent of votes cast were for district voting, which proponents said would give less-populated western precincts a more equal voice in politics.
The vote is also important because newly elected county commissioners can reconfigure district lines that earlier this summer had been redrawn by a politically motivated redistricting commission.
When new commissioners Tom Vanderbeck, George Lucier and Carl Thompson are sworn in Dec. 4, the hope is that their outreach can mend a county unraveled by the referendum. Already, some are extending the olive branch. Jeffrey Starkweather, chair of the Chatham Coalition, which opposed district voting, told Chatlist readers that "It's clear that we have much in common: an abiding love for Chatham—our human and natural resources, special way of life and rural character."