Big Voting Rights Drama in Small Town

The Supreme Court recently faced a challenge to the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A Texas municipality requested that it be allowed to be relieved from the onerous and expensive preclearance provisions of the Act. The Supreme Court avoided a ruling on the constitutional question but did allow the municipality to “bail out “ of the preclearance requirements.

Under those requirements, a number of states and voting districts (mostly in the South, but also including parts of seven non-Southern states such as Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx in New York) must obtain preclearance from the Department of Justice to alter any election provisions.

An even more recent development in the small town of Kinston, North Carolina, shows how the onerous preclearance procedures give inordinate power to the Department of Justice bureaucrats, deprive voters of rational choices, and bring us nearer to the day when the Supreme Court may yet be forced to deal head-on with the constitutionality of this provision of the Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Act was designed to deal with years of voter intimidation and disenfranchisement, and it has proved a very successful tool in the civil rights arsenal. Certainly the conduct it was designed to remedy has long ceased and the preclearance provisions of the Act place an intolerable administrative and budgetary constraint on those covered by the law.

Nevertheless, it remains such a sacred cow that in 2008 the Senate extended the Act’s life by another 25 years by a 98-0 vote. At the time, Jesse Jackson (for whom everything is always Selma) said, “So far, the Department of Justice has favored states’ rights over federal enforcement. We see a pattern."

Now, states and municipalities are compelled to waste a lot of time and money persuading unelected bureaucrats to let the voters decide the minutia of their balloting procedures. This is because no one had the courage to pull the plug on the Voting Rights Act, which clearly had little reason to be extended for another twenty-five years. Acting Assistant Attorney Loretta King made a ruling that has turned the law itself into what Dickens’ Mr. Bumble would call “an ass." Indeed, given the terms of the ruling, perhaps a more up-to-date Mr. Bumble would say the law is a jackass.

Most of North Carolina’s local municipalities hold their elections on a nonpartisan basis. Five municipalities in all of North Carolina, including Kinston, hold partisan local elections. Non-partisan balloting saves money because there is no need for primary elections. It also prevents the need for petition drives to get candidates on the primary ballots.

Kinston, a town of 23,000 people, two-thirds of whom are black, was an exception to the rule in North Carolina. It wanted to change its election rules to conform to the prevailing state-wide method of nonpartisan local elections. The town is overwhelmingly Democratic. Indeed, no one can even remember a Republican holding office in Kinston since Reconstruction. The townspeople voted almost 2-1 to switch to nonpartisan elections, and the vote carried seven of the town’s nine majority-black precincts and both of its white- majority precincts.