News: CJ Exclusives

De-annexation Delayed by Voting Rights Act

Section 5 prevents two communities from rejecting unwanted annexations

Eight communities recently annexed involuntarily into cities now have a chance to undo their annexations. While legislation that became law in June has allowed six of the communities to begin cutting ties with their cities, two are being held up by a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Annexation Reform Act of 2011 allows property owners facing hostile annexation to “de-annex” if 60 percent of the affected property owners sign a petition rejecting the annexation. House Bill 56 made that provision retroactive for eight communities undergoing annexation proceedings by Goldsboro, Kinston, Lexington, Rocky Mount, Wilmington, Asheville, Southport, and the Village of Marvin.

While six of the communities already have begun the petition process, two will have to wait up to four months before the petitions are mailed. This is because citizens of Goldsboro and the Village of Marvin facing annexation live in two of the 40 North Carolina counties covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Pre-clearance

Section 5 requires certain jurisdictions to obtain “pre-clearance” from the U.S. Justice Department before attempting to change any voting practice or procedure. The idea is to prevent discrimination against black residents.

The act became law in 1965 as a temporary emergency procedure to quell widespread, systematic discrimination of black voters across the South.

“The need for it is long gone,” said Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Spakovsky is a former Justice Department attorney who worked on voting rights enforcement and was a member of the Federal Elections Commission.

Coverage of those 40 counties is based on turnout data from elections that happened more than 40 years ago, Spakovsky said. “The formula basically was, if you had voter registration or turnout of less than 50 percent in the 1964, 1968, or 1972 elections, you were covered.”

At the time, very few blacks were registering to vote because of discrimination and intimidation, he said. “None of that’s true anymore. You haven’t had voter registration below 50 percent for decades now.”

VRA in conflict with state law

Kinston and Rocky Mount also are in Voting Rights Act counties, but their boards of elections have gone ahead and mailed out petitions without waiting for pre-clearance. H.B. 56 required the petitions be mailed within 35 days of the bill’s passage.

Rep. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir, said he doesn’t see any reason why both the pre-clearance process, which can take up to 120 days, and the petition process, which takes another 130 days, should not proceed simultaneously.

“The pre-clearance should be nothing more than a rubber stamp since de-annexing in these situations will increase black voter strength, not dilute it,” LaRoque said.

But Wayne County Attorney Borden Parker advised against moving forward with the Goldsboro de-annexation without pre-clearance. He and the other three county attorneys received letters from the U.S. attorney general’s office warning them to wait.

“I don’t see why there should be any problem getting the pre-clearance, because actually it would improve the minority numbers in that district, because the area to be de-annexed is predominantly white,” said Bob Pleasants, president of Good Neighbors United of Wayne County.

Taxed for no services

Pleasants and his Wayne County neighbors were annexed, against their will, by Goldsboro three years ago.

“We’re kind of frustrated and a little bit confused because the bill was passed June 18 and supposedly on that date it became law,” Pleasants said.

It could take eight months before the pre-clearance is granted and the petitions are counted, he said, and another several months before the de-annexation actually occurs, Pleasants said.

“Every day that we’re in the city, we’re paying taxes,” he said.

Pleasants said his taxes are about 1.8 times as high as they were before he was annexed. Goldsboro “offered us nothing we didn’t already have,” he said. “Absolutely nothing.”

Pleasants now pays more for city water and garbage collection than he did for the private versions of those services, and although the city promised his neighborhood sewer service by October 2010, it has “barely even started” the process of providing it, he said. “They’ve acquired some easements and purchased some equipment, but they haven’t got a contract for construction or anything like that.”

With the potential for de-annexation a year from now, the sewer project surely will be put on hold even longer, Pleasants said.

The delayed de-annexations are a perfect example of why Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is no longer needed, said Spakovsky. “It serves no purpose” and causes unnecessary “inconvenience,” he said.

The perpetual five-year plan

And in some cases, the law can cause more than just inconvenience, Spakovsky said, noting the federal government’s rejection of Kinston’s recent referendum to switch to nonpartisan elections.

“The Justice Department objected because the black voters who approved it wouldn’t know who to vote for if there wasn’t a party label next to the candidate’s name,” he said. “It was used to thwart the will of the majority of the voters, who are black.”

Although Section 5 was supposed to last only five years, it has been renewed four times and is not likely to be repealed anytime soon, Spakovsky said.

“Democrats like it because it gives them a way of preventing voting measures they don’t like,” he said, “and Republicans are too afraid to vote against it because they’re afraid they’ll be called racists.”

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.