National Civil Rights Organization Mounts First Major Federal Voting Rights Lawsuit of 2017 in North Carolina

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A federal voting rights lawsuit challenging the election scheme in a North Carolina county was filed this week in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina

The complaint was brought on behalf of voters in Jones County, North Carolina by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, along with law firms Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP and Patterson Harkavy LLP.  The lawsuit alleges that the county’s method of electing its Board of Commissioners—the five-member body that makes critical and wide-ranging decisions impacting Jones County residents—dilutes the voting strength of its African American voters, in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.  Because the county employs an “at-large” system, all Commissioners are elected county-wide.  In Jones County, voting remains racially polarized and white voters historically vote as a bloc to defeat candidates of choice supported by the African American community.  As a result, African American voters have not been able to elect a candidate of their choice to the Board of Commissioners since 1994, though they comprise nearly a third of the county’s voting-age population.  The result, according to the complaint, is the “systemic neglect” of the needs of African Americans in Jones County.

To remedy the violation of voting rights in Jones County, the lawsuit seeks to change the election scheme for the Board of Commissioners from an at-large system to one that provides for single-member voting districts.  The proposed alternative districts would include one in which African Americans would comprise a majority of voters, giving them a fair opportunity to elect a member of the Board of Commissioners and have a voice in the affairs of Jones County.

“This case marks the first major federal voting rights lawsuit filed in 2017 and makes clear that voting discrimination is alive and well in North Carolina,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.  “Racially polarized voting persists in Jones County, North Carolina and as a result, African Americans have not been able to elect a candidate of choice to the county’s board of commissioners in more than 20 years.  While some politicians circulate baseless allegations of vote fraud, this case makes clear the real barriers to democracy that we continue to face today.  We will continue to use the Voting Rights Act as a tool to combat discrimination to safeguard the rights of African American voters in Jones County, North Carolina and other parts of the nation.”

“It is critical for us to defend our democracy by ensuring that elections are free and fair and that all voters have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice,” said Jonathan I.  Blackman, partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP.  “Vote dilution is just as unacceptable to a healthy democracy as voter suppression and gerrymandering.”

“The at-large election system excludes African Americans from service on the Jones County Board of Commissioners, and denies African American voters the chance to elect their chosen candidates,” said Burton Craige, a Raleigh lawyer with the civil rights firm Patterson Harkavy, LLP.  “All residents of Jones County, black and white, deserve to have a voice in their local government.”

North Carolina has been a familiar and contested battleground for these issues.  In 2016 a panel of three federal judges found that the state’s legislative map had been corrupted by unconstitutional racial gerrymandering. Another panel of federal judges ruled in 2016 that the North Carolina state legislature violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act when it enacted numerous restrictions suppressing the ability of African-Americans to vote.  The court roundly criticized the state’s “shameful history” of discrimination and observed that the measures—which included a new voter ID law and restrictions on early voting—targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision.”

The University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights provided critical support in the matter.

To read the full complaint, please click here.

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