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Black voters in Jones County, N.C., haven't been heard, they say. Can a new lawsuit change that?

Backed by civil rights groups and private law firms, a group of Jones County, N.C., residents have filed a lawsuit to end voting practices they consider discriminatory. The case could signal a shift in civil rights litigation.

A voter peels off an "I Voted" sticker after voting in North Carolina's U.S. presidential primary election at Sharon Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S. in March 2016. Black residents of Jones County, NC filed a lawsuit Monday to end voting practices they consider discriminatory.
Chris Keane/Reuters/File | Caption

Black residents of Jones County, N.C., have struggled for years to ensure local representation, some say, but they hope that a new lawsuit will finally bring results.

On Monday, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., joined with two law firms to bring a suit on behalf of black residents of Jones County, N.C. The lawsuit, filed in federal court, alleges that the county’s at-large voting system has systematically prevented black residents, who comprise almost one-third of the county, from electing the candidates of their choice to the county’s five-member Board of Commissioners. 

Since the five candidates receiving the most votes from across the county are elected to the board, the white majority can vote as a bloc to prevent black candidates from winning seats, the plaintiffs say. They argue that this election system has effectively sidelined the black community’s issues, since it is relatively easy to be elected without their votes. Instead, the plaintiffs propose creating single-member local districts, giving predominantly black neighborhoods a higher likelihood of electing their chosen candidate. 

If litigation proves successful in Jones County, it could encourage civil rights organizations to more frequently press forward with smaller cases. And the creation of single-member districts is an important step, observers suggest – though they caution that ensuring effective representation requires more than just electing a given representative. 

“They could draw single-member district boundaries that would, yes, guarantee the election of a black representative,” says Don Davison, a political science professor at Rollins College in Florida, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “But if it only guarantees the election of a single black representative ... even if they’ll have a seat at the table, will they have influence?”

North Carolina has long been a battleground over rights at the ballot box, particularly for African-Americans – and at-large districts like the one in Jones County are nothing new, according to Irving Joyner, a law professor at North Carolina Central University’s School of Law.

“As a practice in North Carolina, at-large districts have been used in the past to submerge large minority groups in an effort to interfere with the ability of African-Americans to elect a representative of their choice,” Professor Joyner tells the Monitor in an email.

If the plaintiffs can prove that they are experiencing vote dilution – that at-large districts are preventing their voices from being heard – and that they would be better represented with single-member districts, then a judge can order the county to institute single-member districts instead, he writes.

That would be a substantial step forward, the plaintiffs suggest, since African-Americans would constitute a majority in at least one district and a black candidate would therefore almost certainly be elected to one of the five seats. The last time a black candidate was elected to the Jones County Board of Commissioners was 1994.

But the move to single-member districts would raise as many questions as it answers, some observers suggest. Having a guaranteed seat might discourage representatives from addressing constituents' needs.

“The person elected might not see the need to be responsive because they know that, just because of the mass, they are going to have a representative on the commission,” explains Bridgett King, an assistant professor of political science at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala. “It’s a risk for voters.”

And if the black population were divided between districts, rather than concentrated in one district, they would continue to struggle to achieve representation.

“Depending on the way the districts are drawn, you could actually end up with more of the same,” Professor King says.

King and Professor Davison agree that “minority-majority” districts, where African-Americans are a higher percentage of the population and therefore stand a better chance of winning a seat, might be a viable solution. Davison goes one step further, suggesting a transition to proportional representation. By distributing seats in proportion to the share of the vote a party wins – for example, a party that receives 30 percent of the vote will receive 30 percent of the seats – proportional systems help ensure that every vote is worth winning, and perhaps make candidates more responsive to the community.

“It would guarantee, I think, more accurate representation of the interests that exist in the community," he says.

Legal challenges have been successful at striking down more recent North Carolina provisions, such as a more restrictive voter ID law and restrictions on early voting, that the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals found in 2016 “[targeted] African Americans with almost surgical precision.” 

But while that context may give momentum to this case, it’s substantively different, says Michael Kang, a professor at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, Ga.

This Jones County suit, he explains, is a “classic Section 2 case,” referring to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits “vote dilution,” voting practices that minimize minorities' voting strength. Similar cases have been brought to court since the 1980s, when Section 2 was amended, Professor Kang says, meaning the case is unlikely to set any legal precedents.

But the fact that this case is happening now may indicate a shift in approach by civil rights organizations: that is, a renewed focus on litigating small cases. That may be an important way for the civil rights community to push back, particularly at a time when voting rights are being contested across the country. And it could herald meaningful change in numerous small, rural counties across the country – counties that, like Jones County, were perhaps too small to have been part of earlier legal challenges.

"This case makes clear the real barriers to democracy that we continue to face today," Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement. "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."