State Politics

Lawsuit alleges racial bias in Jones County elections

In an effort to give Jones County black voters a bigger voice on their local governing board, a national civil rights organization has teamed up with two law firms to file a federal lawsuit challenging the county commissioner election process.

The lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of North Carolina, alleges that black voters in Jones County are prevented from electing candidates of their choice because commissioners are elected at-large rather than by districts.

Jones County is a largely rural area near the coast in which Trenton, the county seat, is about 25 miles west of New Bern. Black residents make up about a third of the county’s population of about 10,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The county’s history of all-white boards of commissioners goes back to 1998. The last time a black candidate was elected to the five-member board was 1994.

Lindora Toudle, a 63-year-old regional health coordinator, has been frustrated with the county board for some time. She contends the members give short shrift or no attention at all to black residents who complain of racial discrimination in government hiring and law enforcement, as well as other issues.

“We don’t have a voice in the direction of the county,” Toudle, a lifelong Jones County resident, said during a Monday conference call with media and the team of attorneys representing her and three other plaintiffs. “They don’t have to listen to us, and as a result nothing changes.”

Efforts to reach the chairman and vice chairman of the Jones County board were not immediately successful.

The lawsuit seeks to change the election process for the Board of Commissioners to one that provides for single-member voting districts. The proposed alternative districts would include one in which African-Americans would comprise a majority of voters, giving them a better opportunity of electing a board member.

The lawsuit comes at a time when many in the civil rights community are worried about protecting voting rights.

In North Carolina, a challenge of key provisions in a 2013 elections law overhaul is before the U.S. Supreme Court. A federal appeals court panel struck the voter ID provision and more, saying the Republican-led legislature had targeted African-Americans with near “surgical precision” when deciding which IDs voters could use and when polls would be open for early voting.

The lawmakers have argued that the ID provision was included to ensure fraud-free elections.

The Jones County residents cited the federal appeals court ruling in their lawsuit, which was filed with the help of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and law firms, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Patterson Harkavy.

“This case marks the first major federal voting rights lawsuit filed in 2017 and makes clear that voting discrimination is alive and well in North Carolina,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said Monday. “While some politicians circulate baseless allegations of vote fraud, this case makes clear the real barriers to democracy that we continue to face today.”

The lawsuit uses Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to bring claims that there has been a dilution of the votes of black Jones County voters.

To land a seat on the Board of Commissioners, a candidate has to be one of the top five vote-getters.

Though black candidates have been supported strongly by African-American voters, the lawsuit contends that “bloc voting” by other members of the electorate consistently make it impossible for black candidates to win.

In 2010 and 2014, a black Democrat advanced to the general election, but “white voters overwhelmingly did not support the African-American nominee,” leading to an all-white board of four Democrats and one Republican.

Black voters petitioned the board in 2014 to change the voting system so commissioners are elected in specific districts, but, according to the lawsuit, the issue was not addressed. The next board election is in 2018.

“It is critical for us to defend our democracy by ensuring that elections are free and fair and that all voters have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice,” said Jonathan I. Blackman, partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. “Vote dilution is just as unacceptable to a healthy democracy as voter suppression and gerrymandering.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1