Federal judge: For blacks, ‘voting rights’ include identifying Democrats on ballots

Font Size:

A U.S. District Court judge has rejected a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — filled when the Department of Justice barred the city of Kinston, N.C. from holding nonpartisan elections — reasoning that lack of access to party affiliation would discriminate against minority voters who otherwise wouldn’t know how to find Democratic candidates on a ballot.

The challenge was initiated after the Justice Department rejected a 2008 referendum vote in which the city of Kinston voted to stop listing candidates’ party affiliations on ballots.

Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department must approve changes to election law in regions with a history, however distant, of racial discrimination.

The Justice Department prevented the 2008 referendum change, arguing in part that “the elimination of party affiliation on the ballot will likely reduce the ability of blacks to elect candidates of choice.”

Advocates for nonpartisan elections including Republican state representative Stephen LaRoque and several other Kinston residents subsequently sued the Justice Department, challenging the constitutionality of Section 5.

“When it comes to questions of federalism, there may not be a bigger intrusion into state sovereignty than the Voting Rights Act,” The John Locke Foundation, a conservative North Carolina think tanks, wrote in a recent newsletter. “There’s simply no basis for requiring certain jurisdictions to get pre-approval of voting procedures more than 45 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed.”

U.S. District Court Judge John D. Bates, however, late last week rejected the challenge to Section 5, specifically Congress’ 2006 25 year extension of the Section, following the reasoning in a previous case.

“Congress carefully and extensively justified its decisions to amend the statute to overturn or modify two Supreme Court decisions interpreting Section 5,” Bates ruled. “This Court declines to overturn that careful, well-supported judgment.”

The ACLU, which had intervened on the side of the defendants “on behalf of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and six minority residents,” cheered the decision, saying it affirms the importance of protecting minority voting rights.

“The right to vote has been under attack across the country, with many states passing laws that will keep minorities, seniors and low-income residents away from the polls,” said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project in a statement. “[The] decision recognizes the importance of the Voting Rights Act for protecting everyone’s right to vote.”

The Center for Individual Rights (CIR), the group representing the Kinston plaintiffs, called the ruling a “setback” but added that it will press forward to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

“The ruling means LaRoque v. Holder can move quickly to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit where CIR will appeal today’s decision,” the group said.

Follow Caroline on Twitter