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Local Jones County election process to change after federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit settlement

As part of a lawsuit settlement over a Voting Rights Act violation, Jones County Board of Commissioners will be elected in single member districts instead of at large.

Today is a new day in Jones County, according to a plaintiff in the first federal Voting Rights Act case filed this year.

A settlement was reached Wednesday in a lawsuit filed on behalf of four Jones County residents against the Jones County Board of Commissioners, its members and the Jones County Board of Elections.

The lawsuit alleges that the at-large voting system the Commissioners have long been elected under violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discriminatory voting practices. The system has the effect of denying the African-American voters of Jones County an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, according to the suit.

The settlement will require Jones County to move to a single-member voting system that splits the county into seven areas, which includes two districts in which African-American voters constitute a majority of the voting-age population.

“For too long we have felt like we didn’t have a voice in our local government,” said lifelong Jones County resident Elaine Strayhorn, one of the plaintiffs. “We love this place because it’s our community, so we deserve to have our voices heard too. As a community, we welcome this change.”

Under the current voting system, five Commissioners are elected at-large to four-year terms. An African-American candidate has not succeeded in winning a seat on the Board since 1994.

African-American residents make up about one-third of the county’s total population and about one-third of the voting age population.

The election changes will take place in 2018, and Jones County is enjoined from conducting any elections for the Board using the existing at-large system. In drawing the districts, boundaries were to be compact and not in derogation of traditional redistricting principles, according to the settlement.

As part of the agreed remedy, Jones County will also pay the plaintiffs $10,000 to absolve them from any future claims arising from the matter.

An attorney for the plaintiffs, Jonathan Blackman, of Cleary Gottlieb, said Jones County expressed an interest early on in the litigation process to an agreed resolution.

“This settlement is one that really remedies a longstanding violation of the Voting Rights Act in Jones County,” he said during a teleconference about the settlement.

The complete details of the settlement and the makeup of the seven new districts can be found here.

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