News: CJ Exclusives

U.S. Justice Department Spurns Kinston Decision on Elections

City leaders appear unwilling to challenge a U.S. Department of Justice ruling to overturn a citizen vote changing Kinston municipal elections from partisan to nonpartisan. Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King, who announced the change, was the same DOJ official who, The Washington Times reports, recommended that the federal government “drop voter intimidation charges against members of the militant New Black Panthers” in Philadelphia during the 2008 presidential election.

Sixty-four percent of Kinston voters said “yes” to a November ballot initiative that would have switched city elections from partisan to nonpartisan. The measure passed by a 4,977 to 2,819 margin, with seven of nine precincts approving the change. The DOJ decision leaves the city as one of five municipalities in North Carolina to hold partisan elections, and the only one east of Charlotte.

King, in a letter overturning the election, said the city did not meet its burden of proof that the change “has neither a discriminatory purpose nor a discriminatory effect.” King’s letter went on to declare, “Removing the partisan cue in municipal elections will, in all likelihood, eliminate the single factor that allows black candidates to be elected to office. In Kinston elections, voters base their choice more on the race of a candidate than his or her political affiliation, and without either the appeal to party loyalty or the ability to vote a straight ticket, the limited support from white voters for a black Democratic candidate will diminish even more. And given that the city’s electorate is overwhelmingly Democratic, while the motivating factor for this change may be partisan, the effect will be strictly racial.”

The letter cited voter statistics as of Oct. 31, 2008: “… 14,799 registered voters, of whom 9,996 (64.6%) are African-American.”

President Obama appointed King, a career lawyer in the department, to her post in January.

In the Philadelphia incident, several New Black Panther Party members in paramilitary clothing were filmed at a polling place wielding nightsticks and taunting white voters with racial epithets. The Times reported in July that King recommended dropping a civil case against two of three Philadelphia suspects and that her boss, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, went along. The Justice Department opened an internal inquiry of the dismissal of the case in September.

Kinston has a five-person city council. Two of the five members are black. The city’s mayor, “Buddy” Ritch, a white male, defeated a two-term black mayor, Johnnie Mosley. Mosley won his first term by a margin of fewer than a dozen votes in a race against a white Republican. A black mayoral candidate was defeated in the September Democratic primary, leaving only white mayoral candidates. Nonpartisan elections eliminate the need for party primaries. The city would have saved about $20,000 if a primary had not been necessary in September.

Edward Blum, director of the Washington-based Project on Fair Representation, said the DOJ’s decision is “very unusual,” but not without precedent. Blum could recall only one or two similar rulings in the last five years. One involved a Florida decision.

Project on Fair Representation describes itself on its Web site as a “not-for-profit legal defense fund designed to support litigation that challenges racial and ethnic classifications and preferences in state and federal courts.”

Several legal scholars have told Blum that only the city would have standing to appeal the decision in federal court, he said. Neither individuals nor groups could appeal it. “If every person in Kinston were to sign on (to the appeal), they still could not sue,” Blum said. “We’re always anxious to help individuals and jurisdictions in legal matters in which we feel the law has been misapplied. I’m not positive we would make a firm offer (to Kinston), but we would entertain one, if asked.”

The work would be pro bono, or at a greatly reduced charge.
Council members, in their first meeting after the decision, tabled a motion to pursue the DOJ ruling.

“I would like to be able to explain to voters who talk to me why, when we voted for it, we didn’t get it,” two-term council member Jimmy Cousins said. “Does the government have more authority than the voter? How much power does the Department of Justice have? How much power is there in a vote? Is voting not any good any more?”

Cousins believes certain people pressured the department when they realized the possible results from nonpartisan voting.

“To be sure, they had to get something from somebody or they wouldn’t have changed the ruling of the voters,” he said.

Democrats have held a lock on power in Kinston for more than a century. Neither a Republican nor an unaffiliated candidate has won a city office since Reconstruction.

The city is on a DOJ “watch list” following the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The legislation was designed to overcome actions in some states that were deemed to practice voter discrimination. The act has been renewed in various forms since its passage. The latest renewal, in 2006, extends the provisions to 2031. Some voting jurisdictions have been removed from the original list, but Kinston and portions of North Carolina and other states remain on the list, and must have DOJ approval to change election procedures.

The partisan system requires candidates without a party affiliation to collect about 600 signatures, or 4 percent of registered voters, to get their names on the ballot. It was just such an incident two years ago that prompted former state Rep. Stephen LaRoque to initiate the fight for change.

Hilary Greene, a black teacher, ran for Kinston City Council as an unaffiliated candidate two years ago. She lost the race.

“(She) was the impetus for the action,” LaRoque said. “I thought it was ridiculous to have to get nearly 600 signatures to run on the ballot. It was something I’d thought about for years, and discussed with others.”

LaRoque and other volunteers collected 1,430 signatures, or 10 percent of registered voters. The City Council refused to place the initiative on the ballot, but the signed petitions overrode the council’s decision. The signatures were from whites, blacks, old, young, men, and women, as was demonstrated when the county Board of Elections verified the petitions, LaRoque said.

Lee Raynor is a contributor to Carolina Journal.