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The GOP wants to change the rules to win the elections their candidates can't

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What an embarrassment for Boss Art Pope. In Wake County, his home base, his Republicans lost their short-lived grip on the school board. Their control of the Wake Board of County Commissioners isn't just gone, it's evaporated—the hated Democrats now hold all seven seats. In 2014, the countywide margin in commissioners' races was a solid 55–45 percent for the four Democratic victors.

Yes, the voters have spoken.

So now, my Wake Republican friends, you have two choices. You can change your message, broaden your appeal and stop bowing to Pope. I know: What a laugh!

Or, you can do what Republicans do best, which is change the election rules to rig 'em so you "win" even if the Democrats get more votes.

In 2011, this is what the Republicans did at the state level, where with breathtaking disregard for basic notions of fairness, they rigged the General Assembly elections by massively gerrymandering election-district lines.

That dirty work done, they were able last year—by they, I mean Republican legislators—to throw out the law governing school board elections in Wake County and replace it with a new one, complete with artfully gerrymandered school-board districts.

Thus the Wake Republicans, unpopular as they are, now have a very good chance of recapturing the school board in 2016. (Oh, I'm sorry, did you think we were due for school board elections this year in Wake? We were. But the Republicans canceled them.)

And with the sudden appearance of Senate Bill 181, the drunk-with-power Republican legislators are about to chuck out the law governing Wake Commissioners elections. Their replacement would deploy the same gerrymandered districts as in the school board races, meaning the Republicans could be in total charge of Wake by 2018—voters be damned.

Two words explain why the Republicans believe that the ends justify whatever means they use: Public schools.

Public schools require taxes. Half of Wake County's budget is for the school system—32 percent for operations and 19 percent for debt service on the buildings. And that's for an underfunded system. Imagine if we were generous.

But it isn't just the cost. It's the idea that all students must be treated equally, even if their families haven't "earned" it. This goes against the entire Pope-GOP philosophy of extra privileges for those who can afford them.

Worse, public school teachers are a band of equal-treatment believers, which is why so many, working through the N.C. Association of Educators, are soldiers in the enemy camp, i.e., the Democratic Party.

Private-school vouchers, charter schools, test mania—the Republicans are doing everything they can to undermine the public school system as the foundation for an equitable society. And nothing will crash it faster than budget cuts.

For 12 of the last 20 years, Republicans controlled the Wake Commissioners, with the result that spending for Wake schools was slashed in 1995–96 and, after a Democratic respite, reduced again from 2002 to 2008 and from 2010 to 2014.

Only in 2009–11 did the Republicans control the Wake school board, which is nominally nonpartisan but fell to a Pope-engineered putsch in the '09 elections. When the GOP ran both boards, the commissioners not only held the purse strings tight, the school board cheered them on.

In practical terms, though, the Republicans can whittle the Wake schools by winning either board, because while the final decision about county taxes is up to the commissioners, the school board can simply refuse to spend money.

Back to those gerrymandered districts. They get their first test in 2016, when the nine school board members will be elected. If all goes according to the Republican plan, GOP candidates will win at least five seats and take control.

Then, if SB 181 is enacted, seven county commissioners' seats will be filled in the 2018 elections using gerrymandered districts, which, to repeat, are designed to elect five Republicans by packing Democratic voters into two of the seven districts.

Every two years, the Republicans can try to win a board and stiff the schools.

Since 1982, the seven Wake commissioners have been elected at-large. They "run from" one of seven existing districts, assuring a geographic spread of the members. But every Wake voter gets a vote in each district. The winners represent the whole county.

SB 181 would replace the at-large system with seven district representatives and add two additional seats to be elected from super-districts, each covering half the county. Voters would be limited to two votes, one in a district and the second in a super-district.

That second vote is a throwaway, though. The way the super-districts are drawn, one—based in Raleigh—is virtually guaranteed to elect a Democrat, while the other—which encircles the first—heavily favors the Republicans. According to Sen. Chad Barefoot, the Art Pope minion whose name is on the bill, one super-district is urban, the other is—well, his word is rural.

For years, Republicans vied for control of the Wake Commissioners by winning in off-year elections, when turnouts were lower and when, by happenstance, four of the seven commissioners' seats were chosen. Typically, Democrats won in the presidential election years, when turnouts shot up, but that often left them a seat or two short. The rules were somewhere between fair and tilted the Republicans' way.

But the combination of Wake's growth and stingy Republican budgets brought a sea-change in the 2014 elections, when Democrats swept to victory in an off-year election by pledging to support the schools and public transit.

It was a clear sign that, barring a shift in philosophy, anything approximating a fair election in Wake could doom the Republicans to irrelevance for years to come. That's why they're now calling for unfair elections.

This article appeared in print with the headline "If you can't beat 'em, cheat 'em."

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