RALEIGH — A national civil rights organization sued Monday on behalf of black voters in a rural North Carolina county, alleging how local officials are elected constitutes racial discrimination.
The federal lawsuit, one of many filed recently by North Carolina black voters or their allies alleging Voting Rights Act violations, seeks to eliminate the method by which the five commissioners are elected in Jones County, 100 miles southeast of Raleigh.
A federal appeals court struck down a 2013 law approved by the Republican-controlled legislature, requiring photo identification to vote, reducing the number of early voting days and eliminating same-day registration during early voting. A trial judge is now weighing whether Greensboro council districts were redrawn improperly by state lawmakers for racial and political reasons.
Boards and officials in Jones County, with a population of 10,000, are defendants in Monday’s lawsuit.
Nearly one-third of the county residents are black. They constitute a cohesive voting bloc, but a black candidate hasn’t been elected to the county commission since 1994, and the at-large election method is to blame, according to the lawsuit filed for four voters in part by the Washington-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“Voting discrimination is alive and well in North Carolina,” committee executive director Kristen Clarke said in a conference call announcing the lawsuit. “This case makes clear the real barriers to democracy that we continue to see today.”
The commission races are county-wide, with each voter choosing up to five candidates in party primaries and the general election. The top five vote-getters win. While black candidates have been supported strongly by the African American voters, “bloc voting” by other members of the electorate consistently defeat them, the lawsuit says.
Democrats comprise the largest party by registration in the county at just over 50 percent. In 2010 and 2014, a black Democrat advanced to the general election, but “white voters overwhelmingly did not support the African-American nominee,” leading to an all-white commission of four Democrats and one Republican. The next commission election is in 2018.
“Countywide elections in Jones County show a clear pattern of racially-polarized voting,” the lawsuit says, alleging the voting system dilutes the black vote in Jones County, which would be a Voting Rights Act violation.
Jimmie Hicks, an attorney representing Jones County, said the county was reviewing the lawsuit but declined further comment.
Black voters petitioned the commission in 2014 to change the voting system so commissioners are elected in specific districts, but it hasn’t been addressed, according to the lawsuit. The voters who sued say at least one district could be majority-black.
“We don’t have a voice in the direction of the county,” plaintiff Lindora Toudle, a lifelong Jones County resident, said in the conference call. “They don’t have to listen to us and as result, nothing changes.”
The litigation cited last July’s ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals throwing out the General Assembly’s wide-ranging 2013 voting law. The ruling, which state officials have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, quoted another Supreme Court opinion involving North Carolina redistricting that cautioned “racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history.”