Lawsuit: N.C. County’s At-Large Election Process Is Designed Specifically to Thwart Black Candidates

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Jones County uses an at-large voting system to elect commissioners, a system that plaintiffs allege shuts out voters from majority Black districts.

Though African-American residents account for a third of the population in rural Jones County, N.C., they’re systemically hindered from electing candidates who will address their concerns, a new voting rights lawsuit argues.

The lawsuit, filed by attorneys from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and two private law firms on Monday, Jan. 13, alleges that Jones County’s Black residents are being prevented from electing desired candidates due to the county’s use of an “at-large” election system, according to USA Today. The small county elects commissioners at large rather than by district, which plaintiffs argue makes it harder for Black residents to elect candidates from their own communities. The complaint also charges that the county’s at-large system greatly mitigates Black voting power.

Both the county Board of Commissioners and county Board of Elections, among other parties, are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Kristen Clarke, president and CEO of the Washington-based Lawyers’ Committee, told USA Today that her organization targeted Jones County because the issues there were symbolic of the issues experienced by Black residents in rural communities across America. She said the organization’s goal is to switch Jones County from an at-large electoral system to one of single-member districts.

“Voting discrimination is alive and well in North Carolina,” Clarke said during a conference call announcing the lawsuit Monday. “This case makes clear the real barriers to democracy that we continue to see today.”

The Associated Press reported that local commission races are countywide, with each voter selecting up to five desired candidates in party primaries and the general election; the five who receive the most votes win. Historically, Black candidates have been supported by the county’s Black voters, but the complaint argues that “bloc voting” by other members of the electorate has consistently left them defeated. As a result, an African-American┬ácandidate hasn’t been elected to the County Commission since 1994.

In 2014, a Black nominee made it to the county’s general electio but was underwhelmingly supported by white voters, resulting in an all-white commission of four Democrats and one Republican, according to the Associated Press. The next commission election is scheduled for 2018 and the Lawyers’ Committee is looking to turn things around for rural Black voters by that time.

“We don’t have a voice in the direction of the county,” said 63-year-old plaintiff Lindora Toudle, a lifelong Jones County resident. “They [the white commissioners] don’t have to listen to us and as result, nothing changes.”

Toudle complained that commissioners have repeatedly made decisions that only benefited the county’s white residents and accused the board of employing garbage pick-up and water contractors who’ve displaced Black residents from longtime positions. Moreover, she said the board has failed to address her complaints about Black residents being mistreated by the police.

Jones County is no stranger to racial discrimination, however. Information from the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights showed that the geographical lines of county seats in Trenton, N.C., were purposely drawn to exclude African-American neighborhoods. An ordinance passed in 1949 and not reversed until the 1970s also prohibited Black people from owning land in the city.

Jimmie Hicks, an attorney representing Jones County, said the county had received the suit filed by the Lawyers’ Committee and others but declined to comment further on the pending litigation.

“We have been provided with a copy of the civil suit, which was filed today in federal court,” Hicks said in an email. “We are in the process of reviewing i and giving it due consideration. Because this involves ongoing federal litigation, we are not in a position to comment further at this time.”

 

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