Above Photo: Voters line up during early voting in Raleigh, N.C. Fourteen states had new voting or registration restrictions in place for the 2016 presidential election, raising concerns that minority voters in particular would have a harder time accessing the ballot box. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome
One-third of Jones County’s residents are black, but it has no black commissioners.
As Attorney General Jeff Session’s shifts the Department of Justice’s focusfrom protecting voting rights to investigating claims of nonexistent fraud, the rights of an increasing number of minority voters will likely go unprotected.
But in that vacuum, a growing number of organizations and advocacy groups have said they will step up to protect voters.
On Monday, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed the first major federal voting rights lawsuit of the year, alleging that Jones County, North Carolina’s voting system discriminates against African-American residents.
Jones County is roughly one-third black, but the black population has not elected a candidate-of-choice to the Board of Commissions in over two decades. According to the lawsuit, this is due to the county’s at-large voting system — a Jim Crow-era tactic that allows localities with white majorities to dilute black voting power.
In an at-large system, each voter gets to select each county commissioner. So long as there is racially polarized voting — like exists in Jones Country — at-large systems make it impossible for minorities to elect their candidates of choice.
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The Lawyers’ Committee’s lawsuit seeks to force Jones County to switch to single-member voting districts. If the county were to be broken up into districts, black voters would make up the majority in at least one and would be able to elect a candidate-of-choice to the Board of Commissioners.
“The Board of Commissioners is a five-member body that makes critical and wide-ranging decisions impacting residents,” Lawyers’ Committee President Kristen Clarke said on a call with reporters, describing the importance of the lawsuit.
A small, rural county in the eastern part of the state, Jones County has high rates of poverty. Black voters have attempted to elect candidates over the past 20 years, only to be defeated by the larger, white voting bloc, whose elected officials do not always listen to the concerns of minorities.
“African Americans seek a responsive government,” Clarke said. “That said, when they raise concerns about use of force by law enforcement or the quality of their community, their concerns have fallen on deaf ears.”
Lindora Toudle, a 63-year-old Jones County resident who is named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said that she and other black residents are “left hanging without hope” under the at-large system.
“There have been plenty of qualified candidates who would represent the concerns of the black residents of Jones County on the board very well, but because of the way we elect our county commissioners, they aren’t successfully elected,” she told reporters.
In recent years, voting rights groups and the Department of Justice have filed a series of lawsuits against counties and towns across the country with at-large voting systems. Last month, as one of its final actions, the Obama Administration’s DOJ sued the city of Eastpointe, Michigan, which has been diluting the black vote with at-large seats since 1929. Lawsuits have also been filed in other districts from Yakima, Washington to Santa Barbara, California to Gwinnett County, Georgia.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, many of the localities that now use at-large voting would have had to get preemptive approval from the DOJ to make changes to their voting laws. By ruling that Section 5 is unconstitutional, the high court opened the floodgates for states to pass discriminatory voting laws, leaving voting advocates with fewer legal options.
But Section 2 of the VRA, which prohibits voting practices that discriminate against any group of people, still stands, and voting advocates have found success by suing cities or counties that use at-large voting under Section 2.
In January, a federal court found that Pasadena, Texas was deliberately diluting the voting power of its Latino residents with its at-large system. And in 2015, a federal judge forced Yakima to also switch to single-member districts.
As Clarke noted, the importance of non-government groups in filing these lawsuits has magnified since President Trump took office. Attorney General Sessions is highly unlikely to bring any further actions against discriminatory districts, as he has called the VRA a “piece of intrusive legislation” and has said the Supreme Court was “probably correct” in its decision eliminate the preclearance requirement.