As Noxubee County voters last week took to firehouses and community halls from Prairie Point to Shuqualak, hints of old Mississippi hung over the polls. Federal election observers witnessed:
•Suspicious manipulation of minority voters' ballots.
•Hired hands at the polls working to "assist" voters in selecting certain candidates.
•A suspiciously large number of absentee ballots in a county where, inexplicably, 127 percent of the adult population is registered to vote.
But nothing is quite what it seems in Noxubee. The minority here is white. Local politics is dominated by blacks. In a further twist, blacks here charge that the US Justice Department investigation into political manipulation is in part an act of intimidation intended to give Republicans a foothold in staunchly Democratically controlled local governments.
"This story has all these odd sort of mirror-image resonances," says Steven Mulroy, a University of Memphis law professor and former Justice Department civil rights attorney. "It used to be local officials that intimidated black voters and federal people came in to stop it. Now you've got black voters saying it's federal observers doing the intimidating."
Led by a lanky, enigmatic chairman and self-proclaimed "yellow dog democrat" named Ike Brown, the Noxubee County Democratic Executive Committee (NDEC) has in the last decade gained a stranglehold on local government, the Justice Department charged in court earlier this year. The NDEC disqualified white votes and bolstered the black vote, sometimes by allowing nonresidents to cast absentee ballots in favor of black candidates. On June 29, US District Court Judge Tom Lee found Mr. Brown guilty of violating the Voting Rights Act, saying that the NDEC carried out a systematic campaign to "impair and impede participation of white voters and dilute their votes."
It marks the first time that the Voting Rights Act has been used to remedy discrimination against whites. The court mandated that the county correct the situation.
A scrap dealer who twice before has been convicted of tax and insurance fraud, Mr. Brown is known by sight or name by just about everybody in the county.
In his defense, Brown says he simply refuses to let Republicans, most of whom happen to be white, vote in the Democratic primary – the de facto general election in a county where 80 percent of voters are black, and most of them are Democrats. Those overwhelming odds against white candidates – only two hold elected office in Noxubee County – explain the predominantly Democratic election outcomes here, not any racial discrimination on his part, Brown says. "This is not about racism, it's about factionalism."
The situation in Noxubee will be rectified, he adds, because another federal judge has ruled that only registered party members can vote in their party's primaries, a shift from the state's traditionally open primaries. Voters will have to reregister – this time with a photo ID – for the 2009 election, the judge ruled.
But the Justice Department says the county's voter suppression and voter fraud findings are serious enough to warrant specific remedies.
Twenty-three federal voting rights observers who observed last week's primary say they witnessed a number of irregularities similar to earlier complaints. Larry Tate, a black county supervisor, charged that the numerous and aggressive observers intimidated voters, especially older ones, by peering over their shoulders as they cast votes last Tuesday. For their part, the observers said their efforts to observe interactions between voters and those assisting them were rebuffed by poll workers.
Brown, who had promised to stay away from the election, took part in a Thursday absentee vote counting session determining the legitimacy of ballots.
"He's still in charge," says Mr. Tate.
Negotiations between Brown and the department over a solution broke down. So in a court hearing Monday, the department offered its own fix: Depose Brown and virtually every other election worker in the county, and replace them with an impartial "referee-administrator" to manage the next election. Judge Lee is expected to rule soon on that request.
"This case is about racial discrimination, pure and simple ... and it shows that discrimination can arise any time, any place, by any group," writes a Justice Department spokeswoman in an e-mail.
The Democrats oversee a financially struggling county. The library is housed in a former jail. Thirty percent of the residents are poor. Only 55 percent can read and write.
Although the Jim Crow era, where white Noxubee County harassed blacks at the polls, is long gone, race still permeates elections here, says John Bruce, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. "Republicans are white, Democrats are overwhelmingly black."
Brown's campaign is "payback, pure and simple," says Scott Boyd, editor of the Macon Beacon newspaper.
At the same time, critics say, the Noxubee voting rights lawsuit is part of a major turning point or the Justice Department's civil rights division.
Former Justice Department lawyers have complained loudly in recent years that the Bush administration has politicized the department. Some of the debate around the recent firings of eight US attorneys revolves around their unwillingness to aggressively go after voter fraud.
Traditionally, "our primary enforcement would be on groups that had historically suffered from a legacy of discrimination," says Professor Mulroy, the former Justice Department lawyer. "As far as enforcement, you might not put whites in the South at the top of that list."