The Voting Rights Act subjected 40 percent of North Carolina’s counties to the mandatory “pre-clearance” regulations of Section 5, requiring approval of the Department of Justice or the courts before electoral changes that might weaken the voting power of African American. The evisceration of this landmark legislation by the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder—and subsequent the omission of North Carolina from the covered jurisdictions in newly introduced voting rights legislation—leaves racially excluded communities particularly vulnerable to political isolation and electoral powerlessness.
The UNC Center for Civil Rights’ State of Exclusion report looked at majority-minority North Carolina communities of color (over 75 percent) and measured a variety of factors impacting the quality of life for residents of those communities. The data with regard to political representation was telling, and emphasizes the need for expanding, rather than eliminating, effective policies measures to address the continuing legacy of discrimination in elections.
In evaluating the impact of residential segregation on political engagement, The State of Exclusion looked at the gap between the racial demographics of the general population of a county and that of their boards of commissioners. In every one of the ten counties that showed the greatest racial disparity in representation, county commissioners were either all elected at large, which is the electoral process that most significantly dilutes minority voting strength; or through a mixture of at large and residency districts (where candidates must live in a designated district but are still elected countywide), which similarly disadvantage minority votes.
Hyde and Jones counties are both almost 40 percent people of color, but both have all-white boards of county commissioners. Both elect commissioners at large, but Hyde has residency districts. Neither county was subject to Section 5, nor were five of the other ten with the greatest disparities. Political exclusion persisted even in counties subject to Section 5 however, suggesting that some excluded communities were never able to take full advantage of its power. Greene, Onslow, and Pasquotank—all Section 5 counties– had a racial differential of more than 30 percent; notably, all have either at large or residency districts.
Of course, meaningful political inclusion is more than just a numbers game or a question of balancing demographics. An African American elected official does not necessarily represent the will of an African American community, and the candidate of choice of an excluded community may not necessarily be a person of color. Racial and ethnic diversity among elected officials is indicative of civic engagement and effective political participation; its absence, particularly in racially diverse cities and counties, highlights the continuing infection of race discrimination in the democratic processes. The State of Exclusion demonstrates that African Americans and Latinos are still dramatically underrepresented in local governments across North Carolina, and that the current electoral policies and practices that continue to prop up that exclusion must be discarded.