Poll: Asheville voters want to decide city council districting

A new poll shows Asheville voters like the current system of at-large city council members, but they want to vote on whether to change it. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

A poll shows Asheville voters like the current system of at-large city council members, but they want to vote on whether to change it.

A total of 54 percent of the people polled believe strongly (40 percent) or somewhat (14 percent) that Asheville should "KEEP its current system of electing at-large representatives," as the poll asked, but 72 percent strongly (50 percent) or somewhat (22 percent) believe council "should put a measure on the ballot that asks voters."

Campaign Research + Strategy (CRS), a political consulting firm from Columbia, South Carolina, presented the results to the Asheville City Council at Tuesday night's meeting.

Currently, six Asheville City Council members plus the mayor are elected from the city at-large, meaning all eligible voters living anywhere in the city can vote on all seats.

A bill in the state legislature would force council to create six districts. Voters in each district would then elect only their council member.

The mayor would still be elected at-large by all voters.

"My overall takeaway from the polling is that the people do want to be asked whether they want the districts," Asheville mayor Esther Manheimer said. "And they want that in the form of a ballot referendum."

Council requested the polling partly in response to Senate Bill 285, filed last month by Sen. Chuck Edwards. He represents District 48, which covers Henderson, Transylvania and southern Buncombe County -- including a small piece of South Asheville.

Edwards was appointed to his seat last August when Sen. Tom Apodaca resigned. Apodaca introduced a nearly identical bill in 2016.

SB 285 allows Asheville City Council to create the districts, but provides the details for them if council fails to do so.

Former Buncombe County GOP chair Chad Nesbitt said people need their own districts to feel better represented. He said a change to district voting could allow a Republican council member to win in South Asheville, but said it's more about getting independents and conservative Democrats to vote, as well.

"Majority of the people in city of Asheville were born and raised here Democrat," Nesbitt said. "Bottom line. Same thing in the county. There are more Republicans than Democrats, they just haven't changed parties yet."

Edwards said he could be changing the bill to allow for different ways to elect council members, but didn't elaborate on the possible changes.

According to the CRS poll, of the 16 highest populated cities in North Carolina, three elect members entirely at-large, three entirely by districts, and the other 10 by some combination.

Asheville City Council will likely review the results before taking further action.

SB 285 is in the Senate Elections committee. Edwards expects the bill to be heard there "within the next two weeks."

The bill would then stop in the Rules Committee before it goes to the Senate floor.

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