Court revives NC’s challenge to Voting Rights Act

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In what has been called a “serious set-back for the Holder Justice Department,” a federal appeals court has chosen to allow a lawsuit challenging a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to go forward.

The case in question involves a 2008 referendum in which the citizens of Kinston, N.C., voted to hold nonpartisan elections, which would keep the party affiliation of the candidates off the ballots, a common practice in the state.

The Justice Department, arguing that conducting elections in this manner would effectively discriminate against black voters, used Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to block the referendum results and force the town to list party affiliations next to candidates’ names on the ballot.

Section 5 requires the Justice Department to review changes to election laws in regions known as “covered jurisdictions,” which in the past were geographical areas known to discriminate based on race. The vast majority of these jurisdictions are in the South.

At the time of the decision, Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King explained that Justice ordered the change because Kinston residents vote based on race, not party affiliation.

“In Kinston elections,” King wrote in a letter of explanation, “voters base their choice more on the race of a candidate rather than his or her political affiliation, and without either the appeal to party loyalty or the ability to vote a straight ticket, the limited remaining support from white voters for a black Democratic candidate will diminish even more.” (Lippold withdraws from Nevada CD-2 race, will not run as independent)

The Justice Department explained that citizens needed to have the party affiliation so that blacks could elect their “candidates of choice,” which the department identified as Democrats and “almost exclusively black,” according to the Washington Times in 2009.

“It’s outrageously offensive,” said Iowa Republican Rep. Steven King. “And it should be offensive to, especially, African Americans to be pandered to in that way, and to have the Department of Justice tell them that they don’t have the ability to discern who to vote for by name, that they can only discern that if it’s party, and it presumes that all African Americans are Democrats.”

The ruling will allow the citizens of Kinston to challenge the decision via an April 2010 lawsuit filed by Stephen LaRoque and others.

Former Justice Department official J. Christian Adams told TheDC that the suit will likely to end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is an extremely dangerous ruling for Eric Holder because Justice doesn’t have an easy way out. It is going to get messy,” Adams said. “Because the Kinston objection … is virtually indefensible and they threw all of their weight behind this standing issue — the idea that the plaintiffs couldn’t sue. They were counting on that to get them out of this mess.”

While the proceedings likely will cause a stir, last week’s victors are pleased with the results.

“That is really fantastic news, for not just folks here in Kinston but all across the nation,” LaRoque said.

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