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Most voting discrimination is local

Voting rightsDeserved or not,  Jasper, Texas — population 7600 —  has become known to those living in other regions of the country as a hot bed of racist activity.

It was in Jasper in 1998 that three white men chained a black man, 49-year-old James Byrd, Jr., to the rear bumper of a pick-up truck and dragged his body along local roads for nearly three miles until his head and shoulder were severed from the rest of his body.

At least twice over the next few years, Byrd’s grave — located in the black section of a segregated cemetery — was desecrated.

It was in Jasper in 2011 that a group of white voters organized a recall of black city council members after the council had hired the city’s first black police chief.  Once new white council members were installed, they fired the chief.

Now Jasper is embroiled in a controversy of another racial sort — voting. Norm Ornstein describes the situation in this Atlantic piece:

In 1988, Jasper tried to annex several predominantly white areas into the city. Under the Voting Rights Act, the city needed preclearance, which the Justice Department denied because it would dilute black voting strength. The city was forced to move from all at-large elections to district ones as a precondition of getting the annexations approved. Now, with no fear of preclearance, the City Council is moving to annex three predominantly white neighborhoods, enabling the city to redraw the City Council lines to dilute any potential of electing black council members.

Ornstein highlights Jasper as a reminder that the Voting Rights Act still matters, but the town also is an example of oft-overlooked discriminatory efforts to restrict voting at the local level.

Over the years, while broad-based restrictive voting practices at the state and federal level drew headlines, discrimination happened far more often at the local level.

As the Brennan Center noted in its recent report on the impact of the Supreme Court’s elimination of Section 5 preclearance in its Shelby County decision:

Section 5’s loss will perhaps be felt most acutely at the local level. The great majority of voting law changes that were blocked as discriminatory under the Voting Rights Act were local: counties, municipalities, and other places that operate below the state level.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights echoes that assessment in its recent report:

The vast majority of instances of racial discrimination since 2000 have occurred at the local level. They often concern the election city, county or other local elected officials, where many of the contests are nonpartisan.

The North Carolina experience bears that out. Here, from the Leadership Conference report, are a few examples of local discrimination thwarted by Section 5:

• Pitt County (2012) – Session Law 2011-174 reduced the number of school board members from 12 to seven, changed the method of election, and reduced the terms of office from six years to four years. The benchmark plan provided Black voters with the ability to elect candidates of their choice to two of 12 seats. The change in the number of school board members in conjunction with the method of election would have decreased minority-preferred officials on the school board from two of 12 to one of seven and was, therefore, found to be retrogressive.

• City of Kinston (2009) – The city proposed a change to nonpartisan elections, with a plurality-vote requirement. Although Black people comprise a majority of the city’s registered voters, in three of the four previous general municipal elections, African Americans comprised a minority of the electorate on Election Day and had had limited success in electing candidates of choice during recent municipal elections. The small amount of White crossover votes resulted from the party affiliation of Black-preferred candidates. DOJ analysis found that the elimination of party affiliation on the ballot would have likely reduced the ability of  Black voters to elect their candidates of choice. The objection was subsequently withdrawn based on new evidence.

• City of Fayetteville (2007) – The city proposed a change to the method of election from nine single-member districts to six single-member districts, with three other positions filled by the top three vote recipients in an at-large election. Under the existing system, African-American voters had elected candidates of their choice to four of the nine positions on the council in all instances. However, under the proposed plan, it was unlikely that African- American voters would have had a comparable ability to elect candidates of their choice to the same proportion of positions on the council.

• Harnett County and Harnett County School District (2002) – The redistricting plans for the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education contained no district in which Black people were a majority in either total or voting age population. However, in the benchmark plan, Black people did constitute a majority in both total and voting age populations in one district. The county did not establish that this reduction would not have resulted in retrogression in the ability of minority voters to exercise their electoral franchise.

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