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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.

vote2The groups and individuals challenging North Carolina’s recent voting law changes filed papers late yesterday in federal court in Winston-Salem asking that implementation of those changes be suspended until at least after the November mid-term elections.

“North Carolinians should be able to vote in the November election without having to navigate the barriers imposed by this discriminatory law,” said Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina and one of the attorneys for the challengers in League of Women Voters of North Carolina et al. v. North Carolina.

Those challengers contend that changes eliminating a week of early voting, ending same-day registration, and prohibiting out-of-precinct voting unduly burden the right to vote and discriminate against African-American voters, in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“Voters are at real risk of being blocked from participating in the pivotal midterm election,” Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “If this law is subsequently found unconstitutional, as we fully expect it will be, North Carolinians who were denied the vote will never get a do-over.”

The parties’ motion follows a ruling late last week by U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder requiring state lawmakers to disclose communications about the voting changes between themselves and others during the time such changes were being discussed and implemented.

Read the parties’ motion requesting a preliminary injunction here.

PlaceMattersBTCThis blog post is part of a series called Place Matters. The other posts can be accessed here, here, and here.

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. Read More

With what Ari Berman at The Nation calls “the first attempt by a bipartisan group in Congress to reinstate the vital protections of the Voting Rights Act,” Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) will today introduce “The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014.”

Here’s a summary of its provisions:

1: The legislation draws a new coverage formula for Section 4, thereby resurrecting Section 5. States with five violations of federal law to their voting changes over the past fifteen years will have to submit future election changes for federal approval. This new formula would currently apply to Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Local jurisdictions would be covered if they commit three or more violations or have one violation and “persistent, extremely low minority turnout” over the past fifteen years.

The formula is based on a rolling calendar, updated with a current fifteen-year time period to exempt states who are no longer discriminating or add new ones who are, creating a deterrent against future voting rights violations. It’s based on empirical conditions and current data, not geography or a fixed time period—which voting rights advocates hope will satisfy Chief Justice John Roberts should the new legislation be enacted and reach the Supreme Court.

The new Section 4 proposal is far from perfect. It does not apply to states with an extensive record of voting discrimination, like Alabama (where civil rights protests in Selma gave birth to the VRA), Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, which were previously subject to Section 5. Nor does it apply to states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that have enacted new voting restrictions in the past few years.

Moreover, rulings against voter ID laws – like in Texas in 2012 – will not count as a new violation. Voter ID laws can still be blocked by the Department of Justice or federal courts in the new states covered under Section 4, but that will not be included as one of the five violations needed to keep the state covered. This exemption for voter ID laws was written to win the support of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and other Republicans.

2: The legislation strengthens Section 3 of the VRA, which has been described as the Act’s “secret weapon.” Under Section 3, jurisdictions not covered by Section 4 could be “bailed-in” to federal supervision, but plaintiffs had to show evidence of intentional voting discrimination, which is very difficult to do in court. Under the new Section 3 proposal, any violation of the VRA or federal voting rights law – whether intentional or not – can be grounds for a bail-in, which will make it far easier to cover new states. (One major caveat, again, is that court objections to voter ID laws cannot be used as grounds for “bail-in” under Section 3.)

3: The legislation mandates that jurisdictions in all fifty states have to provide notice in the local media and online of any election procedures related to a) redistricting b) changes within 120 days before a federal election and c) the moving of a polling place. This will make it easier for citizens to identify potentially harmful voting changes in the 46 states not subject to Sections 4 and 5.

4: The legislation makes it easier to seek a preliminary injunction against a potentially discriminatory voting law. Plaintiffs will now only have to show that the hardship to them outweighs the hardship to the state if a law is blocked in court pending a full trial. There will be a preliminary injunction hearing on North Carolina’s voting law in July 2014, before the full trial takes place July 2015.

5: The legislation reaffirms that the Attorney General can send federal observers to monitor elections in states subject to Section 4 and expands the AG’s authority to send observers to jurisdictions with a history of discriminating against language minority groups, which includes parts of twenty-five states.

Read more of Berman’s piece here.

voteIn case you missed it, a federal judge in Alabama reinstated oversight of a city’s voting practices on Monday — the first instance of a court requiring preclearance of election law changes since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act  last June in Shelby v. Holder.

In Allen v. City of Evergreen, U.S. District Judge Callie V. S. Granade used Section 3 of the Act — the so-called “bail-in” provision — to require the small city to submit certain changes to the Justice Department for approval before enacting them into law.

Section 3 relief, which requires a showing of intentional discrimination against minority voters, is also being sought by the parties in the voting rights cases pending here in Greensboro.

As Adam Liptak reported in yesterday’s New York Times:

Evergreen, an enclave of 3,900 people between Mobile and Montgomery, has a troubled history and has in recent years been found to have improperly excluded minority voters from its rolls and redrawn its district lines to concentrate black voters, who are in the majority, into just two of the five districts, limiting black voting power.

The city acknowledged problems with certain of its practices and agreed to the court’s order.

The path to bail-in and preclearance won’t be quite as easy in the cases pending here and in Texas, as the states are fighting that relief.