Black Residents Claim N.C. County Violates Voting Rights Act

(CN) – Four black residents of rural Jones County, North Carolina, claim in court that the at-large voting system the county employs in local elections unlawfully dilutes the minority vote, making it impossible for them to elect representatives of their choice.

The federal lawsuit, filed on the plaintiffs’ behalf by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, and two local law firms, claims that Jones County’s at-large voting system prevents black voters from electing the candidates of their choice to the county’s five-member board of county commissioners.

The plaintiffs argue because blacks make up only one-third of the electorate in the county, white voters can easily prevent black candidates from winning commission races.

The result, the plaintiffs say, is the election of a board of commissioners that has for at least the past 20 years ignored or failed to address issues important to Jones County’s black community.

According to the complaint, if the current at-large voting system was nullified and replaced by single-member district elections, blacks who predominately live in one section of the county would be able to elect candidates of their choice.

The lawsuit further claims that systematic racial discrimination in the county’s elections suppresses black political participation at all levels.

The county commissions decides how to fund and administer local government services that address affairs that significantly impact the quality of life, health care education and safety of residents.

It also appoints members the board of elections, economic development commission and the county planning board.

The plaintiffs claim that because their voice is silenced in elections, commissioners had failed to address a number of issues that directly affect them including their inadequate access to sewers, a lack of street lights in their neighborhoods, and roads that have long gone unpaved or are in a constant state of disrepair.

The plaintiffs seek a declaration that the current at-large voting system violates the Voting Rights Act, and an order directing the county to replace the at-large voting with a system that does not discriminate against black voters.

Ezra Rosenberg of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law; Burton Craige, of Patterson Karkavy in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Jonathan Blackman of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton in New York.

A phone call to Jimmie Hicks, who is representing Jones County, was not immediately returned.

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