Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Shelby County v. Holder, 40 counties in North Carolina were covered by Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. A new report from the UNC Center for Civil Rights that looks at representation of people of color on county boards of commissioners shows that the act was working to increase political engagement in North Carolina and demonstrates the continuing need for legislation that protects and enhances equitable political representation.
The State of Exclusion report covers all North Carolina communities where over 75 percent of the residents are people of color and examines a variety of factors affecting the quality of life for residents of those communities, including housing, the location of unwanted land uses, access to infrastructure and educational opportunities.
As to political representation, the results were stark albeit unsurprising and serve as a reminder of the need for enhancing, not withdrawing, measures designed to minimize the continuing legacy of discrimination in elections.
In 2012, of the 10 North Carolina counties that showed the largest gap between the racial demographics of the general population and that of their boards of commissioners, seven were not covered by enhanced protections of Section Five. Moreover, not one of those 10 counties elect the county commissioners by district. Five of the six counties with the biggest gaps elect commissioners at-large – the electoral process that most significantly dilutes minority voting strength. The others rely on a mixture of at-large and residency districts (where candidates must live in a designated district but are still elected countywide), which similarly disadvantage minority votes.
The data also reveal that even the potential of Section 5 was not fully realized. Of the 40 North Carolina counties formerly covered, 22 have boards of commissioners that are at least 10 percent whiter than the county as a whole. Greene, Onslow and Pasquotank counties had a racial differential of more than 30 percent, and all either conduct their elections at-large or have only residency districts. Residents of Hyde and Jones counties are almost 40 percent people of color, but both counties have all-white boards of county commissioners. Both elect commissioners at-large, but Hyde has residency districts. Neither county was subject to Section 5.
Of course, an elected African-American official does not necessarily represent the will of an African-American community. Similarly, an African-American choice candidate may not necessarily be African-American. However, the racial makeup of elected officials overall reflects access to government and meaningful participation. The race of candidates for elected office and their success are probative evidence of the continuing impact of race discrimination in election policy and administration, and in civic engagement and political inclusion more generally.
The State of Exclusion demonstrates that African-Americans and Latinos are still dramatically underrepresented in county governments across North Carolina and that electoral policies and practices directly contribute to that exclusion. Any effective new voting rights legislation must begin by addressing this perpetuation of the legacy of discrimination.
Peter Gilbert is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the UNC Center for Civil Rights in Chapel Hill.