Former DOJ official: Keep NC elections under federal oversight

by Jordan Green

A report recently released by a Washington, DC coalition of civil rights groups finds that North Carolina’s progress in providing equal protection at the polls to African Americans and other minorities since the 1982 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act has ‘“been a mixed one of slow progress, setbacks and new challenges.’”

The report, ‘“Voting Rights in North Carolina, 1982-2006,’” published by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, calls for the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, which is set to expire in 2007. The proposed legislation, which was the subject of a Senate Judiciary hearing on May 10, enjoys the support of President Bush and members of both major political parties in Congress. It’s expected to pass both houses without difficulty.

The North Carolina study, one in a series of reports focusing special attention on individual states, contends that the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5 provision has been especially important in breaking down racial barriers at the polls in North Carolina since the legislation became law in 1965. The report calls on Congress to preserve Section 5, which requires that local election officials in 40 counties across North Carolina, receive permission through the courts or the US Justice Department before making changes such as provisional balloting, staggered elections or redistricting that might result in the dilution of minority voting strength.

In addition to the North Carolina counties, Section 5 covers 16 states and hundreds of counties across the country.

‘“The failure to reauthorize the expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act would have devastating consequences for this state’s minority voters,’” the report finds.

Anita Earls, one of the report’s authors, in testimony submitted to the House Committee on the Judiciary last November wrote that ‘“there is a disturbing and mostly quiet counter-revolution underway to dismantle majority-black districts and return to at-large election methods,’”

Earls, who served as deputy assistant attorney general in charge of the JusticeDepartment’s voting section under President Clinton, is now the advocacy director at the UNC Center for Civil Rights in Chapel Hill.

Wan J. Kim, the Justice Department’s current assistant attorney general for civil rights, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that President Bush supports reauthorization of the act. He provided statistics that cast the state of minority voting rights in the United States in a sunnier light than Earls and her colleagues found in their study of North Carolina.

‘“Today African-American voter registration rates not only are approaching parity with that of whites but have actually exceeded that of whites in some areas, and Hispanic voters are not far behind,’” Kim said, adding that the number of black elected officials in the United States increased from 1,469 to 9,101 from 1970 to 2001.

The North Carolina voting rights report posited the push for racial equality at the polls in the Tar Heel State as largely a matter of unfinished business.

No African American person was elected to the NC General Assembly from 1900 to 1968, according to the report. Today three black officials represent Guilford County alone in the General Assembly. Blacks hold 14 percent of the seats in the General Assembly, the report noted, but comprise 21 percent of the state’s population. Blacks have been hindered in efforts to address their needs through political representation by white voters’ reluctance to elect black candidates, the report also found. Not one majority-white district has elected a black candidate to the General Assembly in North Carolina since the act’s 1965 passage.

North Carolina ‘“continues to endure voter intimidation and election schemes that effectively disenfranchise black voters,’” the report also found, citing more than half a dozen documented incidents, ranging from partisan trickery to heavy-handed law enforcement.

During the 1990 Senate race between Republican Jesse Helms and Democrat Harvey Gantt, the report recalls, black registered voters received mailed postcards from the state Republican Party incorrectly stating that they were forbidden from voting if they had moved in the past 30 days. More recently, Latino advocates protested an announcement by Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson just before the 2004 election that he would send deputies to the homes of every new registrant with a Hispanic surname to determine whether they were citizens.

Assistant Attorney General Kim told the Senate Judiciary Committee in his May 10 testimony that the small number of Section 5 objections filed by the Justice Department to changes in local election systems since 1965 reflects overwhelming compliance with the Voting Rights Act. He said 125,885 Section 5 complaints have been filed since the act became law, but only 1,402 have resulted in objections being handed down by the Justice Department.

Three of those objections have addressed problems in Guilford County, one of the 40 North Carolina counties covered by Section 5. The provision was imposed on counties and states in which 50 percent of the voting-age population was either unregistered or did not vote in the 1964, 1968 or 1972 elections, or on counties and states found to have used discriminatory voting tests or devices.

One objection filed by the Justice Department came down in 1982 in response to a complaint that Guilford County’s at-large election system violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting black voting strength. The county soon changed to a system where officials were elected from districts.

Not everyone favors retaining the Section 5 provisions. One opponent is Frank Strickland, an Atlanta lawyer who claims the distinction of having represented both former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. John Lewis in election-related lawsuits. Strickland asked the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to consider removing the state of Georgia from the Section 5 list.

The percentage of black elected officials in Georgia’s delegation to the US House of Representatives exceeds that of the black population as a whole in Georgia, he told the lawmakers, and black politicians have exclusively held the position of mayor in Atlanta since the early 1970s. He said it was especially egregious that Fulton County, which comprises part of Atlanta, is still required to get permission from the federal government to make electoral changes.

‘“Frankly, it is insulting to the integrity of the members of the election board and the entire staff of the election department, as well as to the government and citizens of Fulton County,’” he said, ‘“to be told by Congress that another twenty-five years of supervision by the Justice Department is required based on a presumption that our policies and procedures are suspect.’”

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