Jus­tice Dept. rules black vot­ers need to have Demo­crat op­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY BEN CONERY

KIN­STON, N.C. | Vot­ers in this small city de­cided over­whelm­ingly last year to do away with the party af­fil­i­a­tion of candidates in lo­cal elec­tions, but the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­cently over­ruled the elec­torate and de­cided that equal rights for black vot­ers can­not be achieved without the Demo­cratic Party.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment’s rul­ing, which af­fects races for City Coun­cil and mayor, went so far as to say par­ti­san elec­tions are needed so that black vot­ers can elect their “candidates of choice” — iden­ti­fied by the depart­ment as those who are Democrats and al­most ex­clu­sively black.

The depart­ment ruled that white vot­ers in Kin­ston will vote for blacks only if they are Democrats and that there­fore the city can­not get rid of party af­fil­i­a­tions for lo­cal elec­tions be­cause that would vi­o­late black vot­ers’ right to elect the candidates they want.

Sev­eral fed­eral and lo­cal politi­cians would like the city to chal­lenge the de­ci­sion in court. They say voter ap­a­thy is the largest bar­rier to black vot­ers’ elec­tion of candidates they pre­fer and that the Jus­tice Depart­ment has gone too far in try­ing to in­flu­ence elec­tion re­sults here.

Stephen LaRoque, a for­mer Repub­li­can state law­maker who led the drive to end par­ti­san lo­cal elec­tions, called the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s de­ci­sion “racial as well as par­ti­san.”

The de­ci­sion, made by the same Jus­tice of­fi­cial who or­dered the dis­missal of a vot­ing rights case against mem­bers of the New Black Pan­ther Party in Philadel­phia, has ir­ri­tated other lo­cals as well. They bris­tle at fed­eral in­ter­fer­ence in this city of nearly 23,000 peo­ple, twothirds of whom are black.

In in­ter­views in sleepy down­town Kin­ston — a place best known as a road sign on the way to the Carolina beaches — res­i­dents said par­ti­san vot­ing is largely unim­por­tant be­cause peo­ple are per­son­ally ac­quainted with their elected of­fi­cials and are fa­mil­iar with their views.

“To be­gin with, ‘non­par­ti­san elec­tions’ is a mis­con­ceived and de­ceiv­ing state­ment be­cause even though no party af­fil­i­a­tion shows up on a bal­lot form, candidates still ad­here to cer­tain ide­olo­gies and peo­ple un­der­stand that, and are go­ing to iden­tify with who they feel has their best in­ter­est at heart,” said William Cooke, pres­i­dent of the Kin­ston/Lenoir County branch of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple. Mr. Cooke said his group does not take a po­si­tion on this is­sue and would not dis­close his per­sonal stance, but ex­pressed skep­ti­cism about the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s in­volve­ment. Oth­ers noted the ab­sur­dity of par­ti­san elec­tions since Kin­ston is es­sen­tially a one-party city any­way; no one among more than a half­dozen city of­fi­cials and lo­cal res­i­dents was able to re­call a Repub­li­can winning of­fice here.

Jus­tice Depart­ment spokesman Ale­jan­dro Mi­yar de­nied that the de­ci­sion was in­tended to help the Demo­cratic Party. “The determination of who is a ‘can­di­date of choice’ for any group of vot­ers in a given ju­ris­dic­tion is based on an anal­y­sis of the elec­toral be­hav­ior of those vot­ers within a par­tic­u­lar ju­ris­dic­tion,” he said.

Crit­ics on the U.S. Com­mis­sion on Civil Rights are not so sure. “The Vot­ing Rights Act is sup­posed to pro­tect against sit­u­a­tions when black vot­ers are locked out be­cause of racism,” said Abi­gail Th­ern­strom, a Repub­li­can ap­pointee to the U.S. Com­mis­sion on Civil Rights. “There is no en­ti­tle­ment to elect a can­di­date they pre­fer on the as­sump­tion that all black vot­ers pre­fer Demo­cratic candidates.”

Lo­cated about 60 miles from the At­lantic Coast in east­ern North Carolina, Kin­ston has a his­tory of de­fy­ing gov­ern­men­tal au­thor­ity. Dur­ing Colo­nial times, the fledg­ling city was known as Kingston — named for King Ge­orge III — but res­i­dents dropped the “g” from the city’s name af­ter the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion.

In Kin­ston’s hey­day of man­u­fac­tur­ing and to­bacco farm­ing, it was a bustling col­lec­tion of shops, movie the­aters and restau­rants. Now, many of those build­ings are va­cant — a few have been filled by store­front churches — and res­i­dents are left hop­ing for bet­ter days.

In Novem­ber’s elec­tion — one in which “hope” emerged as a cen­tral theme — the city had un­com­monly high voter turnout, with more than 11,000 of the city’s 15,000 vot­ers cast­ing bal­lots. Kin­ston’s blacks voted in greater num­bers than whites.

Whites typ­i­cally cast the ma­jor­ity of votes in Kin­ston’s gen­eral elec­tions. Kin­ston res­i­dents con­trib­uted to Barack Obama’s victory as Amer­ica’s first black pres­i­dent and voted by a mar­gin of nearly 2-to-1 to elim­i­nate par­ti­san elec­tions in the city.

The mea­sure ap­peared to have broad sup­port among both white and black vot­ers, as it won a ma­jor­ity in seven of the city’s nine black-ma­jor­ity vot­ing precincts and both of its whitemajor­ity precincts.

But be­fore non­par­ti­san elec­tions could be im­ple­mented, the city had to get ap­proval from the Jus­tice Depart­ment.

Kin­ston is one of the ar­eas sub­ject to pro­vi­sions of the land­mark 1965 Vot­ing Rights Act, which re­quires the city to re­ceive Jus­tice Depart­ment ap­proval be­fore mak­ing any changes to vot­ing pro­ce­dures. Kin­ston is one of 12,000 vot­ing dis­tricts in ar­eas of 16 states, al­most ex­clu­sively in the South, that the Vot­ing Rights Act de­clared to have had a his­tory of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion.

In a let­ter dated Aug. 17, the city re­ceived the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s an­swer: Elec­tions must re­main par­ti­san be­cause the change’s “ef­fect will be strictly racial.”

“Re­mov­ing the par­ti­san cue in mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions will, in all like­li­hood, elim­i­nate the sin­gle fac­tor that al­lows black candidates to be elected to of­fice,” Loretta King, who at the time was the act­ing head of the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s civil rights divi­sion, wrote in a let­ter to the city. Ms. King wrote that vot­ers in Kin­ston vote more along racial than party lines and without the po­ten­tial for vot­ing a straight Demo­cratic ticket, “the lim­ited re­main­ing sup­port from white vot­ers for a black Demo­cratic can­di­date will di­min­ish even more.”

Ms. King’s let­ter in the Kin­ston case states that be­cause of the low turnout black vot­ers must be “viewed as a mi­nor­ity for an­a­lyt­i­cal pur­poses,” and that “mi­nor­ity turnout is rel­e­vant” to de­ter­min­ing whether the Jus­tice Depart­ment should be al­lowed a change to elec­tion pro­to­col.

Black vot­ers ac­count for 9,702 of the city’s 15,402 reg­is­tered vot­ers but typ­i­cally don’t vote at the rates whites do.

As a re­sult of the low turnout, Ms. King wrote, “black vot­ers have had lim­ited suc­cess in elect­ing candidates of choice dur­ing re­cent mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions.”

“It is the par­ti­san makeup of the gen­eral elec­torate that re­sults in enough white cross-over to al­low the black com­mu­nity to elect a can­di­date of choice,” she wrote.

Mrs. Th­ern­strom of the civil rights com­mis­sion blasted the depart­ment’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the law.

“The Vot­ing Rights Act is not sup­posed to be com­pen­sat­ing for fail­ure of vot­ers to show up on Elec­tion Day,” she said. “The Vot­ing Rights Act doesn’t guar­an­tee an op­por­tu­nity to elect a ‘can­di­date of choice.’ [. . . ] My ‘can­di­date of choice’ loses all the time in an elec­tion.”

When asked whether Jus­tice had ever “ei­ther granted or de­nied” re­quests ei­ther “to stop par­ti­san elec­tions or im­ple­ment par­ti­san elec­tions,” Mr. Mi­yar, the depart­ment spokesman, said it was im­pos­si­ble to re­trieve past de­ci­sions on that ba­sis.

But he did pro­vide, based on

the rec­ol­lec­tion of a depart­ment lawyer, a sin­gle prece­dent — a de­ci­sion dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­mi­nis- tra­tion deny­ing a bid from a South Carolina school district to drop par­ti­san elec­tions.

That de­ci­sion em­ploys sim­i­lar rea­son­ing and lan­guage as the Kin­ston rul­ing: “Im­ple­men­ta­tion of non­par­ti­san elec­tions [. . . ] ap­pears likely to de­prive black sup­ported candidates of mean­ing­ful par­ti­san based sup­port and to ex­ac­er­bate racial po­lar­iza­tion be­tween black and white vot­ers.”

But the 1994 de­ci­sion doesn’t men­tion the ne­ces­sity of the Demo­cratic Par ty and doesn’t men­tion low turnout among black vot­ers in that school district as a fac­tor af­fect­ing their abil­ity to elect candidates they pre­fer.

Kin­ston City Coun­cil mem­ber Joseph Tyson, a Demo­crat who fa­vors par­ti­san elec­tions, said noth­ing is stop­ping black vot­ers in Kin­ston from go­ing to the polls.

“Un­for tu­nately, I’m ver y dis­ap­pointed with the ap­a­thy that we have in Kin­ston among the Afro-Amer­i­can vot­ers,” he said.


For­mer North Carolina law­maker Stephen LaRoque, a Repub­li­can who led the drive for non­par­ti­san lo­cal elec­tions, calls the de­ci­sion “racial as well as par­ti­san.”

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